The real meaning of discipline

One of my saddest moments as principal happened on the last day of the school year, when a first grader with tears streaming down his face ran into my office and gave me a hug. He was finishing his first year at our school. When he was in kindergarten in a different school, his records indicated that he had been suspended eight times.

In our school he wasn't suspended; it wasn't an option we used. Yes, he didn't always follow directions. He struggled with his work and had some conflicts with peers. We recognized, however, that he was learning to adjust to school -- not an easy task for some young children. So in first grade, he learned that our school was a place where he belonged and where he could learn, albeit different things, just like everyone else.

We did for him what we did for every student with similar needs. We made adjustments and modified expectations. We found his strengths and tried to build on them. His teacher spent time with him. I spent time with him. Our social worker spent time with him. Our school nurse spent time with him. We front-loaded our time to develop a positive, trusting relationship, so he knew without a doubt that he was cared for and valued -- no matter what he did or didn't do in school.

When he did have a problem, we were there to help him with it, not just correct him.  We didn't overlook his problems. We didn't let him get away things. We didn't spoil him. We didn't have the rest of his classmates acting out to get the attention that he did. We separated his behavior from who he was as person. He learned that it was okay to make mistakes and have problems, and he learned that everybody did. He listened to us when we coached him, because he knew we cared.

The other students that saw him being helped also learned that it was okay to have problems. They were reassured that if one day they had a problem like he did, we would help them too.

This approach should be the norm for schools, but, unfortunately, it is not. At our school, we recognized that learning to navigate the school environment socially could be difficult for some students -- just as it is for some to read or do math.

You could, however, make a case that social navigation presents a greater challenge for students than any academic task. In other words, once you learn two plus two equals four or how to conjugate “to be,” you know it for life. But how do you figure out and respond appropriately to your friend saying nice things to you one day and mean things the next day? In spite of this common sense, in most of our schools, that thinking is reversed: you get help and support for academic problems and punishment or negative consequences for social or behavioral ones. Consequences by themselves, however, don't teach students the skills they need to do better the next time they face a similar problem.

Many schools, however, don't change, because most students succeed with the traditional approach. Many educators think that if most of the students do what they are supposed to do, why can't the ones who don't change? This explains how schools that are filled with competent and caring people too often fail to reach the students who desperately need care and acceptance the most.

Therefor, following the recent school shooting in Florida, although there are many issues involved with that tragedy, the image that kept replaying in my mind was that first grader with tears in eyes on the last day of school. He was crying because his mother told him he would be leaving our school and going to another one next year. For a year, he belonged and was accepted. He cried because he was afraid that he would go to another school where he wasn't. Maybe somehow he figured out that our school was the exception and that his previous school was the rule.

I have often wondered what happened to that boy. Who would he become after twelve years of repeating his kindergarten experience over and over? Who would he become after experiencing being cared for and accepted? Students' identities and their feelings about school are not fixed but are dramatically shaped by how they are treated, particularly when they don't conform or meet expectations.

Children, influenced year after year, develop an identity that they unknowingly accept and unconsciously believe is impossible to change. In some cases, this is an identity that no person would want. When these students act out, they are just following the script that comes with that negative identity.

The traditional approach to discipline unfortunately projects an identity that sticks to the few who create problems for the school, saying to them, “others are better than you; others get approval; others belong, and you don’t.”  It is difficult for these students to love and respect the schools that send them these types of messages.

Schools need to be transformed into communities where everyone belongs, where differences are accepted and membership is unconditional. Schools can and should be places that all students can love. Making this change will require educators to think differently about student behavior and reflect on how they respond to it.

Real discipline should be more than deciding what consequences to use with students; it should always be about learning. So when students break the rules or have trouble, educators need to ask, "How can we help them learn what they need to learn, and how can we meet their needs?" The answers to those questions should shape both our discipline practices and the type of school that we provide for our children.

Jim Dillon has been an educator for over 40 years, including 20 years as a school administrator. He is an educational consultant for Measurement Incorporated, which sponsor the Center for Leadership and Bullying Prevention. He is the author of Peaceful School Bus (Hazelden). No Place for Bullying (Corwin, 2012), Reframing Bullying Prevention to Build Stronger School Communities (Corwin) and the picture bookOkay Kevin (Jessica Kingsley Publishing).

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