School Discipline

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Question:

I'd like your opinion on the following discipline technique used by one of my 7th grade son's teachers: 

My son's table (4 students) was told to leave the classroom during correction of a test because someone at the table was talking. The teacher knew who was talking. She told all four students that the guilty party needed to come forward and confess or the three non-guilty students needed to confidentially come forward and tell her who was doing the talking. 

In talking with this teacher, I was told that she uses peer pressure as a technique for maintaining control over her class. She can't keep her eye on everyone and relies on students to tell her who is misbehaving. In this specific instance, she told the 4 students that each of them would receive a zero on the last page of their test unless one of them revealed who did the talking. She knows it was not my son, but she maintains her policy of holding the entire table responsible for the actions of anyone at the table. I do not like this technique. It requires students to tattle on each other. I'd like your opinion of this technique and whether you think it is effective or appropriate and why. 

Thanks for your help. 

Brenda

Answer:

Brenda, 

My name is Jody McVittie and I am part of the team that answers questions for the website. I teach Positive Discipline to parents and teachers in the Puget Sound area. Your question challenges me a little bit. Here is why: You know you don't like what she is doing and think it is "wrong"...and it seems like you are trying to line people up on your side to prove your point. One of the things that I have learned working with teachers is that telling them that they are "wrong" is not the best (most effective) place to start. I unfortunately learned this the hard way.....but hopefully you can learn from my experience. 

It does make sense after all. If my neighbor came over and told me I was parenting wrong, and had the goods to prove it, how would I feel? Would I feel encouraged? Invited to try a better way? Would I just love to invite my neighbor over again and again to hear that message? Of course not, and if your neighbor did the same thing you probably wouldn't either. 

It is hard for parents to relate to the incredible pressures on teachers these days. They have enormous responsibilities (more than 5 years ago), they feel like they are measured by unfair testing, feel like the kids have less family support and come to school more needy than ever etc... It is really overwhelming to the point of deep discouragement for some. On top of that, most teachers get very little effective teaching in classroom management. Teaching is a very difficult job and teachers are just human beings like the rest of us. 

I am not saying that the teacher is right...or wrong... but that is how she has chosen to manage her classroom. (Positive Discipline in the Classroom advocates teaching students to focus on solutions that are respectful to everyone, but that is not the point here.) If you or your son wants to have influence over her style the most effective way to do that involves several steps:

  1. Hold her generally in high regard. People who feel liked are more easily influenced by those who like them. This can't be phony....it is about finding the best in her and really seeing that as her primary feature.
  2. Develop a relationship based on number one. (This takes more time than you have left this school year)
  3. After the first two steps have your son set up a time for a meeting where he can gently explain his position to the teacher in a non - judgmental way.

There can be no expectation for change. But teachers often respond the best to students who respect them enough to kindly tell them how they feel and offer alternative suggestions that might work better. If the teacher is not too discouraged by other parts of her job and life this strategy has the best chance of working. (Other things that do NOT work include going to the principal, complaining about the teacher to other parents...etc. - you get the picture.)

In the meantime, this is a wonderful opportunity for your son to practice seeing the world from another's point of view. Life is not perfect, life is not fair and sometimes we end up in situations where it does not feel like we are being treated respectfully. What can your son do to make the best of it? One of my colleagues refers to this as an opportunity to stretch psychological muscles. It is a great life skill. It grows human beings who are more empathetic, more resilient, and more able to roll with the punches of life. 

You obviously have created a wonderful environment for your son. It is REALLY disturbing when others cannot honor that. It is important to realize that this treatment will not hurt him permanently (he may get bruised for a bit) and that his ability to deal with it, understanding that the world is not perfect, will be a source of strength, not a weakness. The foundation you have created for him at home gives him the ability to use this as an opportunity. 

Best wishes! 

Jody McVittie 

Dear Dr. McVittie,

I wrote to you to find out if there was something I didn't know about the technique of holding groups of students responsible for the behavior of one. I was concerned about using this technique in any situation, but most especially in a case where the teacher actually knew who had done the talking. I'm really not "trying to line up people on my side to prove my point." When I spoke with this teacher, I started out the conversation telling her what a great science teacher she is, how much my son has learned and how much he enjoys her class. I then asked for a simple explanation of why she'd use that technique when she knew the guilty student. I was never given an answer. That was why I was frustrated.

In my email to you, I asked you if you thought the use of this technique was effective or appropriate and why. You answered my question with a long discussion of the problems teachers have maintaining discipline, the pressures they have on them and how difficult a job teaching is for most teachers. 

I've worked with my son for years trying to teach him the very things you mentioned in your email. He's going to have to figure out conflicts with people in all areas of his life and this is just one of them. 

I'd love to actually get an answer to the question I had and not just because I want to prove myself "right," but to actually try to learn if there is any evidence that this technique works well in a classroom.

Brenda

Dear Brenda, Whoops! I obviously misread your question and your intent. I am sorry about that. I appreciate that you took the time to write back and set me straight. Lets see if I get closer to the mark this time. My understanding of your question now is: Is "there is any evidence that this technique works well in a classroom?" The simple answer is "no." And I am quite comfortable saying this because I have spent quite a bit of time over the last three months reviewing the educational literature for evidence of what does work. 

To make things a little more complicated though, there is also no evidence that singling one kid out and punishing them for what they did works either. There is no evidence that punishment has anything but very short term results. You could argue that at least punishing only one kid only makes one kid feel bad and I think that argument has some merit.....but in this case I don't think that the kids could get out of feeling bad no matter what they did. 

The events that you describe cannot be simply labeled as punishing one or the group. To me, it seems like the kids were put in an incredible double bind. They either had to admit guilt or tattle on someone. From the kids point of view they had to clearly choose allegiances: their table mates or the teacher. The cost of choosing their table mates was the punishment of the teacher. The cost of choosing the teacher was some unknown social cost. No wonder your son was uncomfortable. And I agree with you that these methods are unlikely to gain the teacher respect (and thus diminish her influence and the students eagerness to cooperate in the future). I think that maybe one of the reasons you didn't get an answer back from the teacher is that she doesn't feel so good about it either...but may not be trained in (or know about) some of the other alternatives to help get cooperation. She may have felt like she was in a tough spot too...but maybe you will have planted a seed for her. 

Are there better methods? We think so. We don't have a lot of evidence to document them yet though in schools. (Though you can check the Ann Platt article on the website under resources/research.) The Positive Discipline techniques rely on focusing on solutions and building a classroom sense of community and cooperation (then the teacher doesn't have to pay attention to every single thing in the classroom because the kids take some ownership and don't get benefit from creating mischief). This is an authoritative model. It is based on using kindness and firmness at the same time. While the research on schools is not as complete as we would like, there is excellent evidence that using an authoritative (kind and firm) parenting style results in higher academic achievement and less social and health risk behavior (smoking, drugs and sexual activity). 

Brenda, I hope this answers your question as it was intended. I get it that you are not trying to change the teacher. Jane Nelsen made a few comments as well and I have clipped them in below. If we are still off the mark, try again or give me a call. I'd be glad to try again or even give you the references to the research evidence. 

Best wishes, 

Jody McVittie 

Hi Brenda, I would like to make a few comments about this. I'll start with, "It depends." It depends on if the whole group is held responsible to find a solution. I don't believe the whole group should be held responsible for a punishment. Let me give you an unrelated example. When two kids are fighting in the back of the car, I suggest that parents pull over to the side of the road and sit and read a book until both say they are ready to stop fighting. Several things make this effective.

  1. Letting kids know in advance that this is what you will do.
  2. Letting them know if advance that you will need to hear from both of them that they are ready.
  3. Asking them to repeat back their understanding of what you are going to do and what you need to hear from them -- and how many of them you have to hear it from.
  4. Following through with kindness and firmness at the same time. This means simply pulling over to the side of the road to read until they say they are ready.
  5. Not saying a word, (no lectures, no reminding) but kindly and firmly waiting until the kids remember.

I also treat kids the same when they are fighting. I don't look for who started it (because you can't really know -- too often we don't see the action that started it.) I will offer them a choice. "Kids, do you want to go outside to fight or would one of you like to put this on the family meeting agenda." Or I might say, "Would you like to go to separate rooms until you are ready to stop fighting, or would you like to use the "Wheel of Choice" to find a solution to your problem.

So, that is the case for how I might treat children the same at home. In the classroom I might say, "We need to stop correcting the test until everyone has stopped talking." Or, I might say, "Who has an idea about how we can solve the problem of talking." In that way, I'm holding everyone responsible. I'm not focusing on blame, but on solutions. I don't believe the teacher could know who is the one who talked. One child may have whispered and she didn't hear that.

To summarize, I think peer pressure works well when focused on solutions and helping each other. I don't think it is effective for long-term results when used for blame, shame, or any other form of punishment. The three criteria for Positive Discipline:

  1. Is it respectful?
  2. Is it effective long-term? (Does it consider what the child is thinking, feeling, deciding, learning?)
  3. Does it teach important life skills (respect, concern for others, problem-solving, cooperation)

This is what the book, "Positive Discipline in the Classroom" is all about.

So, this is what we believe, I think Jody McVittie's point was that you can't change the teacher, so the only thing you can focus on is what your son could possibly do under such circumstances. I hope this is helpful. Jane Nelsen