The Heart of Discipline
It’s officially October at Little Mountain Elementary. We joked that the ‘honeymoon is over’ during our last staff meeting. In reality, we have started to understand our environment, and our students are now comfortable with their friends and their teachers. At times, they are a little too comfortable. We’re starting to see impulsive decisions from students, friendship concerns, and just poor choices. This isn’t anything new to any of us in education, of course. We live this calendar of events each school year. We stress the importance of positive relationships and connections during September, but there’s probably no better time to reinforce relationships than when student choices need redirection.
Systematic approaches to school discipline are everywhere. Google school discipline systems, and you’ll be overwhelmed by the responses. PBIS, positive discipline, conscious discipline, restitution theory, restorative practices, and even yoga will pop up on your screen. All schools deal with discipline, and if we’re being honest, we will always have students who make poor choices. No matter what system we invest in, I believe strongly that the true difference maker is a proactive approach. What we do after a poor choice is made is important, but the time and positive connections with students on a daily basis from our staff members cannot be overstated as what matters most.
With that being said, what is the best approach after a poor choice has been made by a student and they are sent to the office? I’ve learned so much from reading about the various systems and people I’ve worked with over the years that I tend to believe there’s no fool-proof answer. In addition, I’m a big supporter of giving each student what they need. Some people would be shocked to learn that we had a fight on the playground last week, and there was no formal office discipline. At the same time, I’ve had students sit with me during their lunch so we could discuss name-calling during recess. Discipline isn’t black and white. There never has been and there never will be a discipline matrix that links behavior to the one solution that will keep the behavior from recurring.
This thought process can complicate things at times. There are staff members who still feel strongly that discipline is synonymous with punishment. I recently reread Todd Whitaker’s book titled, What Great Teachers Do Differently (a must read for anyone in education). In it, he writes, “When a student misbehaves, the great teacher has one goal: to keep that behavior from happening again. The least effective teacher often has a different goal: revenge. Effective teachers are motivated to prevent misbehavior; ineffective teachers are motivated after a student misbehaves, to punish the student. As educators, we must focus on what we have the ability to influence. We all know we can’t change what has already happened; what’s the point of directing our energy there?” This is exactly why each student and each situation needs to be treated differently. What is fair and successful for one student will be unfair and unsuccessful for the next. But we must always keep the end goal in mind: What do we want for this student?
Regardless of the situation, each student needs to leave the office knowing they are cared about. There’s no incident where the reaction from us is to give up on a student. It’s yet another opportunity to build a positive connection in hopes of increasing more positive behavior. Almost every one of the students who spend time with me in the office for redirection will look for reassurance the next time I see them. This could be a hug, a wave, a high five, or any other call for attention to remind me that they are doing their job. This is how I know my time with the student has been effective. To me, the students are recognizing they made a mistake, they are communicating they are remorseful, and they want to repair the relationship. We use a multitude of strategies to work with the students during an office referral. The one constant is that if they go back to class ready to learn and feeling cared about there’s a much better chance the behavior will not repeat.