This post is a reflection on an article I just read by Katherine Reynolds Lewis. The article, titled “What if everything you knew about disciplining kids was wrong?” My goal in this post is not only to share my experience, but also to start a conversation about how teachers manage the challenge of teaching while needing to focus what can be a lot of time and energy on an individual student.
One section resonated with me most:
“Under Greene’s philosophy, you’d no more punish a child for yelling out in class or jumping out of his seat repeatedly than you would if he bombed a spelling test. You’d talk with the kid to figure out the reasons for the outburst (was he worried he would forget what he wanted to say?), then brainstorm alternative strategies for the next time he felt that way. The goal is to get to the root of the problem, not to discipline a kid for the way his brain is wired.”
As I was reading this, I thought back to the most challenging students that I have taught over the past thirteen years. I appreciate Greene’s philosophy and have tried strategies similar to those mentioned above, and I still do. I read Dweck’s book on mindsets; most of my research in college centered on student motivation and the importance for children to develop self-reliance. But this didn’t stop me from using extrinsically motivated rewards charts. Eventually, I gave up on the short term behavioral charts, because I rarely saw any real success – due to my own inability to keep up with the chart’s demands or the student’s quick return to challenging behavior after we stopped using the chart.
But why did I use them in the first place? Why did I think they would work? I think this is at the core of the problem. As a young teacher, those were the fall back plans, the last resort. I also know that I am lucky. I teach in an independent school without incredibly difficult students and small class sizes. So how do we help young teachers without those luxuries from falling back to systems that will only result in failure, for the teacher and student?
One theory that I considered as I was reading: the reason we use those behavioral charts is because of other kid’s parents and our administrators. If a parent comes to you with a complaint – Why is Daniel distracting my son all day? Why is Francis continuing to have outbursts in class? Why did Jenna bite my daughter? – you better be able to respond with the fact that you have addressed the issue and there are consequences in place. If your administrator follows up saying that a parent has told them you aren’t controlling your classroom, you better have a plan in place. Saying that you are using a behavior chart, and you’ve seen some growth, and the chart has more stars than last week, feels slightly more secure than saying, “Each time it happens, we sit down and discuss what caused the outburst. Then we come up with alternative strategies.”
As I wrote the last paragraph, I realized that a combination of the two might be useful – keeping track of the behavior (but not including rewards) but also discussing the strategies in a personal, meaningful way with the student.
I don’t know the administrative experience, but I can imagine talking to a parent who is angry about their child being hit/kicked/bitten is a difficult one to start with. If you simply tell the parents that the teacher and student are working with the student through conversations, my guess is that they won’t buy it. I can hear that parent forcefully making their point that the school is being soft. We’re allowing kids to be disruptive and we’re just making it worse. I’m sure every teacher and administrator has heard some version of this response. Are our decisions based on the expected reactions of the other kid’s parents? How do we educate parents to understand the benefits of an alternative approach to the traditional?
The article seems to put a lot of attention on the poor choices of teachers, which bothered me. The other main challenge for me as a teacher was always finding the time. The outbursts never occurred at an opportune time when you could just stop teaching the other 20 students in your class and talk to one about their behavior challenges. How do other teachers manage that individual v class challenge?
I hope those of you who take the time to read this will respond – here, on twitter, with your colleagues at school, maybe with parents. I would love to hear other thoughts or ideas; while curriculum continues to change, this classroom challenge will always be present. Hopefully we can change our methods so that students and teachers can feel and be more successful.