Discipline in Schools: Is This Working?

This American Life, Episode 538: Is This Working?

http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/538/is-this-working

This is a really powerful and honest exploration of discipline in schools; what is the purpose, what are the methods, what is working and what is not working. Some of the stories told are all too commonplace, some of them are very unique and tragic situations. However, all of them represent a dilemma or debate in the education community about how we should think about and implement appropriate and effective student discipline methods in schools, and what that may mean for different communities. The show also reflects on the parallels of school discipline policies and those of the criminal justice system.

It starts by surveying a number of middle school teachers on their response to a behavior scenario which has a student refusing to comply with a no hats school policy. There is a wide range of answers from a full-fledged, middle of class conversation, to simple demerit points smoothly integrated into the uninterrupted class content, and even the throwing of a clog!

Elizabeth Green’s book, Building a Better Teacher, is cited in that there are still teacher preparation programs around the nation that do not have a class that covers classroom management and specific behavior management methods. And indeed, there is no best practice that all educators agree upon. In spite of this, yet and still “you kinda have to nail discipline before you do anything else that you want” in the classroom, says Ira Glass.

Here are some of questions and issues they explore:

  • Will the wrong kind of discipline in school screw up children for the rest of their life?
  • Is it appropriate and/or effective to suspend pre-school children?
  • Do the behavior histories of parents in schools repeat with their children?
  • Discipline disproportionality based on race. “Is my black preschooler just another statistic?
  • The-school-to-prison-pipeline
  • Michael Thompson and the Texas student database from 2007-09 that showed that 2 out of 10 black boys in Texas made it through high school without being suspended. Students who were suspended were three times as likely to come in contact with the criminal justice system outside of school.
  • Strict discipline as a management method in high-poverty schools with students who have multiple Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE’s).
  • The creepy feeling when teachers use hyper-control methods on students and there is little joy and humanity in different school situations.
  • “Do you not get why I am freaking out right now. I am so worried because I see myself and my friends, and some of those people are in prison right now.” -Rousseau Mieze
  • Fear Factor:
  1. Teachers are afraid of losing control
  2. There is a fear students will not develop self-control
  • Restorative Justice: a mediation that tries to restore the harm done by the crime. This comes from the criminal justice system, where they bring offenders and victims together to talk about the crime and attempt to restore justice somehow.
  1. Lyons Community School
  2. Talking circles to resolve conflicts, “talking is how you are successful” ie thorough communication.
  3. A long-term investigation of student actions and words goes along with the long-term project of each student “Being Lyonized”. Talk, exploration, reflection and cognitive behavior therapy.
  4. The Plain-Clothes Cop on the Train story, restorative justice between an angered cop and a group of 9th grade Lyons students, whoa!
  • “What is the point of punishment in school? Is it to teach self-control? To get kids to be quiet so that learning can happen? To prepare children to function as grown-ups in the world? To teach them how to avoid being arrested?”
  • “Removed from the community” is the term they use at the end of the show to refer to the parallels between suspension and prison as our standard social punishments.

For me, the comments of Rousseau Mieze on hyper-control methods rang most true. In my second year as a bilingual instructional assistant in a Title I Seattle public school, I was aware of my calling to the teaching profession and spent some of professional development hours observing the experienced and innovative teachers in my building.

I spent one half-day in the classroom of a teacher who was new to the building and district, having moved from Los Angeles after working for more than 20 years in inner-city schools there. She was nice as pie in the staff lounge, one of my favorite teachers to chat with about students, teaching and life. In the classroom, however, she was not to be trifled with, even as a fellow staff member I felt on-edge about my performance based on her expectations in her classroom.

I distinctly remember the feeling of a community-building activity that she seemed to be ramming down her 5th graders throats that day. The students were in a big standing circle tossing a ball to their peers and practicing giving “put-ups” as opposed to put-downs to their fellow classmates. This activity was viscerally awkward and disingenuous at times, and yet the teacher was strident that all the students complete the activity no matter how fake it felt. I distinctly remember walking away from that half-day observation wondering if I had to be such a strict and demanding task-master in order to teach these diverse students of color and lesser economic means? It didn’t feel good to me. It was not inspiring. But, as I saw throughout the school year, this teacher was highly effective in building relationships with the most recalcitrant students, bringing up the reading levels of her lowest ability-level students, modifying bad behaviors, reinforcing good habits and maintaining high expectations. This woman was a pro and she knew what her students needed and she gave it to them whether it was bad tasting medicine or not.

Like Rousseau Mieze, I find it a bit disconcerting to find yourself in the position of holding young people to such strict discipline standards. As a person who has had their fair share of discipline issues in school, it is not fair that certain young people have a shorter leash and a greater potential for consequences than I did as a white male student. Yet, the fact remains, that Mieze and I both have friends who have gone to prison because of self-control issues in their youth. Discipline is definitely important in all classrooms, but it appears to be eminently critical in certain schools and classrooms. Suspensions and the disproportionality issue have to change, but not at the expense of this uncomfortable bit of current reality.

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4 thoughts on “Discipline in Schools: Is This Working?

  1. What a powerful video! I try to find a fine line between strict and caring discipline. Sometimes I am too strict, and other times I am too soft. It’s difficult to manage, and show the students what’s okay and what’s not and still be caring. My students are much better behaved now than when the year began, but that’s after I was hard on discipline at the beginning. How I have softened up a little bit, but still lay down the law when necessary.

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    1. I think the most interesting part of the TAL piece was that it was a pretty neutral exploration of discipline issues in schools. I think they did a good job of respecting the complexities of administering rules, deciding consequences, handing down punishments and the need for punitive behavior management at times. It is a fine line, as you say, Martin. I think you’ve definitely got the right idea about being strict and disciplined and demanding high behavioral expectations at the beginning of the year. If you don’t do that, its an uphill battle all year to get your students to respect you as the administrator of behavior in the classroom. If you do do that at the outset, it makes things so much easier and can provide space to trust students to self-regulate the behavior in the class themselves.

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      1. I couldn’t agree more. I have been teaching for five years so far, and it has taken me that long to find what works and what doesn’t. Behavior management is an evolving process involving the use of different strategies which must be appropriate for the level taught. I teach elementary fourth grade students. I want to prepare them for the higher grades and yet still make learning fun, it’s such a challenge!

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