There is a certain image of the school principal that we have in our minds. When most people think of their expectations of a principal, the image above is probably a good approximation of what might come to mind. We expect a principal to be an imposing figure, striking fear into the hearts of children and adults alike. People reinforce those images from the time a student is in Kindergarten asking children in a foreboding voice, “You didn’t get sent to the principal’s office, did you?!?!?” Many teachers also have a certain expectation when they send a student to the office, that the student will come back so shaken that they will never dare to misbehave again. While I certainly take the expectations of both teachers and the community seriously, we need to step back from what can be an emotional and trying issue and consider what is best for kids and what is most effective in preventing that behavior from occurring again.
For the majority of kids sent to the principal’s office, helping them to calm down, talking through what went wrong, what they can do next time, and speaking with their parents is all that is needed. Although there may be a traditional consequence imposed (detention, time out, etc.), the range of emotions the student goes through from being anxious, ashamed, and fearful of the unexpected or their parents’ reaction is enough to make it very unlikely they will repeat that behavior again. A stern presence or a long lecture really isn’t needed. For a smaller percentage of students, although I wish I could scare away the difficulties they have getting through their school day, the truth is, I can’t. At least not in any lasting way. To those who ascribe to the philosophy, “Hammer them and if that doesn’t work, get a bigger hammer,” I would ask them if they really believe that strategy hasn’t already been tried with that child. Do you really believe that the child hasn’t been yelled at? Intimidated? Probably spanked? Don’t you think that if all the child needed was a swift kick in the pants, they’d probably be on the right track by now?
So what will work?
The truth is there are no short term fixes for students who display serious social emotional and behavioral difficulties at school. When we are at our best, we will help that student to build positive connections with adults and other students at school. We will make sure we are meeting the student’s academic needs with the supports they need to be successful. We will systematically teach and reteach the social skills the student is lacking to be successful. We will give them strategies to build impulse control. We will work with their parents and community organizations to connect them to resources outside of school when they are needed. When consequences are needed, we will focus on natural consequences that emphasize the safety and learning of students. Bad behavior isn’t always about choices. If the student had the skills to be successful in your class and with his peers, don’t you think he would choose to use them? Who chooses failure when success is an option easily within their grasp?
The discipline strategies in use by many educators are just one example of the “knowing/doing” gap that holds education back in many areas. The simple and difficult truth is that better ways to educate students are known, but are not always implemented. Although using a more positive approach to discipline has been proven to be more effective, many are hesitant to change practices that have long been accepted practices within their schools and communities.
I believe education blogger Joe Bower says it best when he says, “It’s time to drop the archaic strategy that says when kids do bad things, we should do bad things to them.” You can find his excellent and thought provoking post, “Working with children when they are at their worst” here.
I know very well how hard it is working with difficult students (as a special education teacher I consistently worked with the toughest students). No one should have to go it alone. But we can do better than trying to punish students into compliance. They need us to teach them the skills they will need to be successful beyond the walls of our classrooms when the stakes are much higher. Like it or not, if we as educators don’t teach them those skills, many times, they won’t learn them.
Below are some websites to organizations I have found helpful or who have influenced me as an educator. I would love to hear your thoughts and experiences as well. Together, we can do better for our students!
Illinois PBIS Network (Positive Behavior Intervention Supports)
CASEL (Collaborative for Academic and Social Emotional Learning)