Saturday, January 25, 2014

Five Good Reasons Teachers Avoid Discipline

In my first couple years in the classroom, I struggled with student discipline. Back then, I didn’t know how to establish routines and procedures or how to communicate and enforce expectations. When I could not ignore my high school students’ disruptions, I typically engaged in sarcasm or insults, or empty threats. 

Neither my pre-service teaching courses nor my school leaders ever explained how to handle student discipline. I really did not know whether or not I could ever send a student to the office, or how to even use an office referral. I honestly felt I was on my own, and I just had to outsmart and out-talk misbehaving students. 

Of course, eventually, I angered and frustrated my students, and they turned on me. All the positive aspects of our relationship counted for nothing when I failed to interact with them in a professional and adult manner. I realize, now, that fear is the reason I struggled to discipline my students. 

Teachers who don’t control their classrooms or have problematic relationships with students frustrate principals, but there are actually a few really good reasons that teachers resist disciplining students: fear of conflict, fear of losing control, fear of parent or student hostility, and fear of others’ negative perceptions of one's practice. All of these fears are rooted in an overarching fear of not being supported by school leaders. 

School administrators must provide support to teachers and students in the form of an explicit building-wide discipline system. Specific rules and step-based consequences, along with an emphasis on using supportive language and a non-emotional tone of voice, are all that is needed to transform an entire school climate. 

Like any other practice they want to see embedded in his or her school, the administrator must communicate the system, monitor the adults’ implementation of these components, and support teachers’ practice with the system. 

Principals must address their teachers’ unspoken fears regarding student discipline. Explain how to handle conflict with a student. Assure your teachers that you will help them if the class is out of control or threatens to get out of control. Show them how you can help with a hostile parent. Let them know that even the best classroom manager eventually meets a student (or a group of students) who pushes his or her emotional buttons. 

Everyone eventually needs support to handle one or more difficult students. We must support each other, for the benefit of our students and for the health of our school.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

January, When Teachers Get Do-Overs in Classroom Discipline

Thank God for January!

If you realize that you did not hold a tight enough line for student behavior throughout your first semester, winter break gives you a chance to rest and reflect on your performance. It is time for firmly resolving your disciplinary weaknesses. When your students return to school after break, introduce them to your super-alter-ego, Mr. or Ms. Consistency. You might want to explain that you intend to enforce the rules and procedures more consistently, but no talk will mean a thing without action.

Look for the first opportunity in every class to address gateway behaviors. 

Gateway behaviors include whispering, sitting backward or sideways in a chair, taking a long time to take a seat upon entering or after throwing away trash/getting a tissue, wearing clothing backward, being slow to follow directions. Correct these behaviors kindly but firmly with a direct request:  “Can you sit squarely in your seat?” “I need you to stay in your seat for the rest of the period. Thank you.” “Can you put your jacket on the right way?” “Can you get your paper ready immediately, please?”

Every time you speak to a student about even the smallest behavior, mark a tally beside his or her name on your recording form. Students will not miss this action. They will know you are keeping track of how often you have to talk to them about behavior.

Remember to use only controlled, professional communication.

No sarcasm, no exasperation, no threats. Just kind but firm requests to comply with the rules and procedures you pointed to all of first semester, but failed to enforce with action. Show radar-like withitness (yes, that's a word, coined by the educational community). Plan to look for every small infraction and address it. You may even want to plan some activities your students can do without much instruction or assistance so that you can give all of your attention to monitoring behavior for a few days.

Once you have requested compliance, invoke your consequences for the next repeated offense. You will have one or more opportunities to do this in every one of your classes. Don't miss the opportunity to send the message that you have changed. Prepare yourself to issue consequences kindly but firmly.

Determine to follow through, calmly and consistently.

Do not apologize or hem and haw. Tell the student quietly, “Step two, John. Please do not blurt out again.” Mark another tally beside John’s name. Enforce your classroom consequence for step two. In our building-wide discipline system, step two is a phone call home to let the parent know the teacher had to talk to John twice today about blurting out comments: "Our rule is to raise your hand before speaking. I believe John is capable of doing that, and I want to address it now so he does not get into trouble."

Expect a power struggle. That’s right. When we fail to discipline effectively for the first half of the year, many students will resist the new order. Stand firm. Don’t lose your cool. Own that you helped create the environment that led to this issue. Own, also, that you are determined to correct it. This is another reason to prepare independent work at the first of the month, so that you can gather your emotions once you’ve been challenged. Reclaim your classroom. You can do it.

If I had to speak to John a third time in one class period, I would issue a 20-minute detention and call his parent to notify him or her of the requirement. A fourth time would earn John an office referral, all of which I keep track of on my recording sheet for that class, so that I can follow through with every consequence.

Don’t be surprised when, along about mid-February, your classes operate with fewer disruptions, interruptions, and eruptions. Don't be surprised when your students get more work done than ever before. And don’t be surprised when you find yourself thinking, “Just wait until August. I’m going to start out even more consistent with my discipline!”

Monday, January 20, 2014

"Kids Don't Learn From People They Don't Like"

This TED Talk by educator Rita Pierson has been circulating in my community recently. Pierson's statement, "Kids don't learn from people they don't like," really gets to the ground floor of teacher-student relationships.

When some folks, even educators, hear "disciplinarian," they envision the tyrannical, imperious, no-nonsense teacher who rules the classroom with an iron fist. She doesn't smile until March, if then. "I don't care if they like me. I care if they respect me," this teacher likes to chant.

Ironically, a teacher who earns kids' respect through consistent, fair, and kind-but-firm discipline, is a teacher kids come to like. We may not be in the profession to make friends with kids, but we are here to educate youth, and education addresses character as well as reading, writing, science and history. 

How can a teacher help his students develop character unless he exhibits sound character traits himself? Kindness, humility, perseverance, tolerance, professionalism, self-respect, love, patience are caught as much as taught in the classroom. 

In his book The Quality School Teacher, William Glasser delivers the same message as Rita Pierson: 

If there is an axiom in lead-management, it is “the better we know someone and the more we like about what we know, the harder we will work for that person.” Choice theory explains that we will work hard for those we care for (belonging), for those we respect and who respect us (power), for those with whom we laugh (fun), for those who allow us to think and act for ourselves (freedom), and for those who help us to make our lives secure (survival). The more that all five of these needs are satisfied in our relationship with the manager who asks us to do the work, the harder we will work for that manager (p. 23).

I maintain that a school-wide discipline system that communicates clear expectations for all kids, that is implemented with kindness and firmness, and that is thoroughly supported by the principal, is necessary for most teachers to develop this status of beloved, quality school teacher. If a teacher struggles with student discipline, she has much less chance of developing the appropriate, productive student relationships Ms. Pierson and Dr. Glasser espouse.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

How I Came to Love Detentions

For teachers to operate with authority in their classroom, they must have some kind of system for student discipline. Typically, a classroom discipline system includes:
  • the establishing of procedures, along with practice until those procedures become routine for all students; 
  • the clear communication of behavioral expectations, or rules; and 
  • the implementation of a short continuum of consequences.
An after-school detention is a common response to repeated misbehavior. I learned to love detentions when I realized how 20 minutes of one-on-one time with a student changed my relationship with him or her, and how that changed relationship quickly changed the student's behavior in my classroom. 

Steps Before Detention

My classroom discipline system called for three re-directs to each student, each with a little more intrusive consequence, before a referral to the office. Step one was just a warning, a request to start or stop doing something. Step two was the dreaded SENTENCES assignment. I required students to write twenty-five times for the next day's class, the following sentence:  I have all the self-control I need to do the right thing always. 

This turned out to be a very controversial decision. Fellow-teachers claimed that using writing for a consequence would make kids hate writing. I maintained that, since it made kids hold and use a pencil more than they had been doing, it actually contributed to their stamina for the act of writing. Besides, copying a sentence is very different from composing a paragraph, story, or essay.

When a Consequence Angers Parents

Some parents were infuriated by this consequence. Their child could be doing their school work instead of copying a sentence over and over. I agreed, but I still needed a mild-ish classroom consequence. I knew that 25 sentences took most kids less than 30 minutes to complete. They could write them in a dentist's waiting room, in the car or on the bus, or on the couch in front of the television.

I suspected that protesting parents were offended by the content of the sentence. Perhaps they felt I was judging their child as lacking in self-control. Actually, I judge almost all impulsive youth as lacking in self-control. I really just wanted a relatively short statement that would be useful for someone to rehearse, a confession more positive than "I will not talk in class." 

If a parent was set against this consequence, I just answered, "If you don't want me to issue sentences for your child's consequence, I can skip that step. I'm just trying to keep order without having to send kids to the office." Most parents appreciated my motivation.

My Goal for Detention

Detention was step three. If I had to talk to a student about misbehavior for the third time in a period, the student had to meet with me for 20 minutes after school. I also assigned a detention if a student failed to bring his sentences when they were due for misbehavior the day before. 

When a student came to detention, I told him that every sentence he wrote in detention counted for two, and I would write five of them myself. My students were
 almost always shocked that I would sit next to them and help them complete their consequences. 

My goal for detention was not to make sure the student served time for daring to disrupt my class. My goal was to develop a relationship in which the normally-impulsive child, or the rebellious, angry child would realize I cared about him and would allow me to help him make better choices in school. 

While we copied sentences, I asked about my student's family, his school history, his favorite class, his struggles. I asked how I could help him be successful in my class or throughout his day. I asked him why he thought I had rules and gave consequences. I wanted to overtly clarify my heart's intention for discipline. 

There's nothing like a one-on-one conversation, on an equal playing field, to diffuse anger and gain cooperation with a young person. The student started to see me as a person who cared, rather than an authority figure bent on punishing kids.

Bigger Reasons for Detention Time

Some kids can't do well in school unless they know they are seen, noticed, understood, and appreciated. Sometimes I learned that a peer was bullying a student, and he acted out to call my attention to the situation. I almost always discovered that kids wrestled with tremendous struggles in their daily lives, and my willingness just to listen to them for a few minutes gained significant cooperation from them.

Through these experiences, I learned to always seek to make kids successful with the lesser consequences and to use my precious 20 minutes alone with one child - or a few children - to foster positive and trusting relationships. Our students don't extend respect to adults just because they are adults. We have to earn their trust and their regard. Once we gain it, though, many of our kids become fiercely devoted to us.

Teachers often want to send all kids who earn a detention to one teacher for supervision. This is a decision made for the convenience of adults, at the expense of the kids. Actually, it does not benefit adults either. I want my consequences to pay off for me in my classroom. If I just punish, without building relationship, I make my students angrier. It's not a win. I would never give my detentions to another teacher to supervise, if I could help it. 

More Happy Outcomes

Once I learned to love detentions, I noticed a leap in my confidence level related to issuing consequences. Because I knew how much detention time could change our relationship, and how much cooperation I could gain from each student, I did not hesitate to assign consequences when students' behavior called for it. 

As my relationships with individual students grew, more and more kids seemed to want a taste of my consequences. Several students asked me to assign them sentences, even though they didn't misbehave. They wanted that experience, for some reason. Others asked if they could stay after with me, just to talk. 

I would never have enjoyed that result if I had been frustrated or irritated by having to correct student behavior, or if I had ceded the supervision of my detentions to another adult.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Our Multi-Leveled School Discipline System

Now in my fourteenth year as a public school administrator, I am more convinced than ever that a multi-leveled school-wide discipline system provides the bedrock for a positive and productive school environment. My staff and I apply a considerable amount of diligent attention to evaluating and improving our system each year.

Losing children to suspension or expulsion has always vexed my soul. I stay fired up to keep even chronic behavior problems in school, inventing and implementing programs that enable us to hold onto ugly-acting kids without derailing the educational program for the majority of the student body.

All personnel in our building play clearly defined roles in our school-wide system. Administrators, secretaries, para-educators and aides, custodians, and classroom teachers all address inappropriate behavior in hallways, on the grounds, at assemblies, and elsewhere. Whenever a student disrespects adults, administrators make it clear to the child that any adult in the building can tell them what to do, and the student has to be able to accept that. 

If a student feels that an adult mistreats him or talks to him unprofessionally, then he can tell that to an administrator, or ask his parent to talk to an administrator, and we will address it. But correcting adults is an adult’s job, not a child’s prerogative. It will never be okay for a student to defy or disrespect an adult in our building.

De-escalating Language
Because the way people talk to kids can either escalate or de-escalate them, I require my staff to be trained in a behavior model that addresses our use of language with kids. When all adults in a building adopt a relational, business-like communication style, student misbehavior decreases significantly. Yelling and scolding occur so infrequently in our building that we are surprised, and even aghast, when we hear it. In several instances, we have asked substitute teachers who default to fussing and denigrating kids not to come back to our building.

Common Rules and Consequences
All classroom teachers require the same five rules or expectations for behavior. They invoke the same four-step consequences for infractions to those rules. By the end of September, nearly every teacher has made believers of the majority of their students, and we begin to work on the 15% or so who are chronic, using our more intrusive behavior model, BIST (Behavior Intervention Support Team). 

Students with Chronic Behavior Problems
Chronic kids are those who do not or cannot respond to a traditional, rules-and-consequences approach to discipline. They have understandable reasons for carrying entrenched anger, distrust of adults and authority, hopelessness or fear. I require all teachers to participate in ongoing training in the components of the BIST model. 

My staff has become extraordinarily effective in extending grace and accountability to chronic students. All of our teachers can develop individualized behavior plans and conduct deep processing sessions about life goals and how emotions connect with behaviors. All of our teachers can commit long-term to a supportive relationship with some of the toughest kids in school. They make a huge difference in kids' lives. 

First of all, they maintain classrooms where kids have little opportunity to hurt others, where students can hear, pay attention, and learn. Secondly, they can hold onto a certain percentage of chronic kids who just need to partner with a trusted adult in order to adjust their feelings about school personnel and control their knee-jerk, self-protective reactions to authority figures.

Intensive Care Unit
Still, we have 15 to 25 students every school year who would have been suspended or expelled from our school. These kids' behavior is so severe that the classroom teacher, even with expertise in BIST, cannot spend the kind of time and attention needed to facilitate the internal changes that lead to consistent positive behavior. In the past two years, we have been able to add an on-site alternative program that has proven effective beyond my vision for it.

We offer our School Within a School to parents at their child's long-term hearing, in lieu of a long-term suspension. No parent has opted for the five-week suspension over our alternative program. The parent and child sign our contract for the program, agreeing that the student will stay in the program until they actually and truly change. For most of these students, it takes an entire school year or longer to acquire the life skills that will enable them to succeed in the regular school program.

I feel like we finally have all the levels of support we need for all the degrees of behavior we encounter. In the first year of this program, we lost only one student to expulsion. (He was accepted into a different alternative program our district provides for very few students.)

Here is a graphic showing our school-wide system at-a-glance:

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Discipline Is Love. Say It Back.

I first heard of Ron Clark, Disney Teacher of the Year, more than a decade ago, when he was a guest on Oprah, presenting his newly published book, The Essential 55. Meaning, the essential 55 rules for the classroom! Gasp! Every social nicety from saying "excuse me"  to winning gracefully was delineated for his fifth-graders. He spoke, animatedly, about how much fun they had learning and monitoring their 55 rules.

My youngest daughter, then eight, watched with me. She followed every word and gesture Mr. Clark bestowed on Oprah and her audience. 

“I want to be in his class!” she breathed.

“What?” I exclaimed. “You want to follow 55 rules?”

 “Yes! Sometimes we don’t know what to do. And he makes it look fun!"

Now, there’s a great approach to school discipline:  Tell kids what’s expected in life’s varied circumstances. And make it fun.

I cannot claim that we make all of our school discipline fun. We have a strict yet benevolent system that sets clear limits for how students will behave and treat one another. Our behavior model requires a caring conversation with every offender. Because they feel safe and secure, our students can relax and have fun at school.

We have learned to issue consequences that are suitable for the offense, and to administer them without breaking relationship. In fact, it is common to hear my assistant issue office consequences for various hurtful or disruptive behaviors, and follow up with, “But I love you! Say it back.” Nearly every time, the student will laugh, or at least mumble, “Love you, too” as they exit her office.

We expect to correct kids, and most kids expect to be corrected. But we don’t have to default to anger, frustration or disgust when they need correction, even for truly ugly behavior. Our jobs don’t exist so that we can deliver academics to perfect robots. We teach so we can guide, protect, heal, and inspire youngsters, which means we have to embrace them as they are and work with them, with patience.

When the building-wide system is so predictable, fair, well-communicated, and consistent, no one has to resort to yelling, stomping, nagging, or shaming young people. We are less likely to need our negative emotional responses to our students, and if we are non-emotional, they can’t blame us for their actions. They have to own their own issues. We’re no longer the source of their excuses. We’re there to help them manage their own emotions.

And helping kids is fun. Discipline is fun.

Discipline is love. Say it back.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Supporting Teachers with Your School-wide Discipline System

After leading a school for 14 years, I can offer an important generalization about enforcing school-wide policies: Many hands make light work. Even though school leaders may want to keep student discipline issues from overwhelming their classroom teachers, the most effective and efficient way to enforce policies is through the teachers. Administrators must support teachers’ efforts to uphold school policies by defining exactly what to monitor, describing precisely how to respond to students’ violations of each policy, and assuring specific office-level follow-through.

Obviously, our goal for any procedure or policy is to make sure all kids are prepared for and attending classes every hour of the school day. Each teacher only has 20 to 30 students to inspect and address; one or two administrators would have 300 to 400 students each to monitor. Expecting administrators alone to supervise and enforce all policies causes too many kids to be out of class, for too long a time, and too often.

The critical contribution of an administrator is to establish an efficient, systematic response to preventing and managing behavioral infractions. Teachers must know exactly what to do when students do not comply with school policies, and administrators need to follow through with office-level consequences once non-compliance reaches a disruptive threshold, meaning, as soon as it begins to take too much attention away from teaching and learning.

This may seem obvious to outsiders, but people who work in schools know that it is commonplace for teachers to have to figure out on their own whether a student’s behavior warrants a referral, or whether it is worth it to correct a student they don’t know in the hallway. If I want every adult to monitor student behavior, no matter where they are, I need to let them know when to issue a detention or write an office referral, to whom they report certain misbehavior, how to redirect and correct students without escalating emotions, and how I am going to back them up.

It is also commonplace for teachers to wonder if anything will even be done when they write a referral. If a teacher does refer a student to the administrator in charge of discipline, does she always receive notice of what action the administrator took? If not, how quickly will she try to address objectionable behavior the next time she encounters it? The building-wide system must include an efficient way of communicating how an administrator handled a disciplinary incident.