Teacher having a difficult time implementing Positive Discipline

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This summer I read your Positive Discipline books for teachers. I was totally enthralled with this new approach and couldn't wait to begin. It is now the third week of school and my classroom is in total chaos. I know that the books said it often takes a while for the kids to get into things but I can't keep going like this. Another teacher that I work with has been putting a lot of pressure on me to go back to what I was doing before. It is very difficult for me to do that because I made a commitment to myself and my students to try this, yet how can I keep going when it could be to the detriment of my class. I have tried everything I know how to do. We have class meetings every day. We sit in a circle, pass an object around, and try to find solutions (the kids aren't great at that yet.) My biggest problems occur outside of the class meetings. I cannot get them to listen to me and some have been very disrespectful to me and to my co-worker. Please help!



Valerie, It is very difficult for me to help you when I don't know what is going on. I don't know how old your kids are or what else you are doing. One mistake many teachers make when first beginning Positive Discipline in the classroom is to be too kind without being firm. A huge key is to be both kind and firm at the same time.

One teacher (with a very difficult class -- most of the kids had fathers in prison) told me that she kept re-reading Positive Discipline in the Classroom every night while soaking in the tub to relieve her stress. She would always find something she had missed during the first reading (it is difficult to absorb it all), that was exactly what she needed to try.

I met two teachers on a ski lift at Taos, NM who had attended a workshop 6 months earlier. They told me they were so glad they had stuck it out for more than a month when it didn't seem as though it was working, because it finally did -- and was especially helpful to the kids she was most worried about.

I'm sending a cc to a list of people who use Positive Discipline. Maybe some of them will have some tips. Where are you from?

Meanwhile, I wish you the best,

Jane Nelsen

Dear Valerie

I am sure I am the least practiced member of this list - not being a teacher by profession and being an often pre-occupied mum at other times. However, I would really encourage you to "hang on in there". Jane's point about re-reading everything you have already read is True*** - there are always new things to see which were not obvious before. 

I also wholeheartedly endorse her points about being "kind and firm" - especially "firm". The children (and I assume that the people you are trying to use the new ideas on are in primary (grade?) school) need to know that whilst some things are OK (i.e. you are not going to blow up on them), some things are still not OK (e.g. being disrespectful to you or your co-worker). And that the not OK things are ways of respecting you and your views in the same way that you respect them and their views. 

From my limited experience of Positive Discipline, I can vouch for the tremendous effect that sincere shoulder to shoulder compliments have on children. It makes them (even the seemingly hard boiled ones) sit up and want to do the things they will get these honest appraisals about -and I am sure that after not too long a time, you will begin to see how the children also have things to say "thank you Valerie/ the name of another classmate for ..." 

And then there is the point about dealing with conflicts - it is true that when the children rub each other the wrong way and then after the emotions have been acknowledged and the "wrongs" recorded for discussion at the next meeting, often they no longer view the "wrong" as an issue. The conflict goes away without any prompting, nagging or coercion. 

However, it does take time (and training) to get the children to come up with solutions that they feel are workable. But you know, the hardest part is letting go of the need to direct the proceedings - as an adult who has had to manage many a situation (even those I did not like) I have become accustomed to taking control and telling others what to do. But in my little experience, that really doesn't work so well with the children. They need to "own" their own solutions and learn that originating these solutions means being able to take into their own hands how to ask for redress (respectfully) and what to ask for - i.e. solutions that are tailor made to their own inner needs whilst remaining respectful to the child that has "wronged" or more accurately "hurt" them.

If the children continue to be disrespectful to you or your co-worker, you could ask for solutions to this problem that seems to occur to you outside of class meetings. 

And it helps to get lots of "suggestions" from those present (perhaps initially the person in authority) about what kinds of solutions would work. I think there is always a lot of modeling from and following what the person in authority does. If I may be candid and admit so, often the poor/disrespectful solutions at the beginning are a reflection of the children being unused to having their opinions sought and their reflecting back to us (me) the type of punitive and disrespectful stuff they've been hearing for a long while from us (me). 

And finally (as I am sure I have gone on too long), the little jobs that make belonging real are another great day brightener. It is here that I learnt how capable children are and how proud they feel to be capable. They do want to take responsibility and will try to discharge that to the best of their ability - willingly but remember here that adult and children's standards do vary - but what's that compared to having to pull reluctant sacks of stones up the hill of responsibility? My children and I have an arrangement which we use most often in the holidays when we play "who's the boss today?" - we all take turns and each day one person gets to decide what we eat, where we eat and what we do if it isn't already decided but that person also has to make sure that others' needs are catered for as reasonably as can be, and they have to remind others what responsibilities those others have so that the day/holiday runs smoothly. They quickly realise that being the person in authority is not always easy - there are good bits but there are also tough bits - keeping firm and focused even when one doesn't really want to do that at all. 

I think I should stop now. If it is any help - we are all rooting for you. It is never easy to bring about change but this is one type of change that once the children begin to respond will make you remember all the wonderful things about being a teacher and a human being. Of course it doesn't always work out all the time and sometimes not even some of the time, but then that's life isn't it? 

Wishing you all the best 
Leslie (from Singapore)

Hi Valerie,
I agree with Jane that often the reason why teachers have trouble with the PD approach is because they've concentrated so hard on the kindness part that they've forgotten about being firm.

As a teacher who uses PD, I think that the tone of voice we cultivate, even while we're doing everything else right, is often what can make or break our classroom atmosphere. Ask yourself if you're using a no nonsense tone of voice. As long as it's respectful, that's OK to do! We can be friendly and yet no nonsense. If when you're speaking to the children, you sense a pleading tone to your voice, then you know that you need to work more on being firm. If you hear your voice constantly going up in a question even when you're making a statement, then you need to work on being firm - a kind voice, but a firm voice. Practice it at home. I remember that when I first began teaching, my biggest mistake was stating facts with a questioning tone to my voice.
Also, it's OK for you to put the topic of disrespectful voices on the class agenda! You are a member of the class and this is a problem that's bothering you. It's a perfect class meeting topic. Discuss it with the kids: "Have any of you experienced this?" Brainstorm some solutions and then, most importantly, follow them. Just as with any other class meeting agenda item, you can try the solutions for a period of time and then, if they're not working, bring the subject back to a meeting.

Role-play a kind but firm voice at home in front of the mirror if necessary so you can see the expression on your face when you're speaking. I'm sure you know that part of being a good teacher means being a good actor! Actually, the class can role-play respectful voices too. They can role-play a scenario using a disrespectful voice, process it, then role-play using a respectful voice. Process that role-play.

It would be helpful if you can give us some concrete examples of the problems you're experiencing. Also, as Jane requested, knowing the age group you're working with can help us give you some more specific feedback.

Jacki Romano

When the teacher has a problem in the classroom, it is always okay for
that problem to appear on the agenda. I found students very willing to
discuss any problem that existed in the classroom - even if the teacher
put the item on the agenda.

Kay Rogers

Thank you so much for your prompt reply! I guess I was so anguished over what was going on that I left out to many details! I am in a small christian school teaching grades 5-8 in one room. I have a class of 10 kids (8 boys and 2 girls). I am new at teaching these grades (most of my experience has been grades 1-4) so I think that may also have compounded my problems. After reading what you wrote I realized that a lot of what you said was true...I was being too kind and not firm enough. I guess it is hard to find a balance between the two. Also I am not sure what to do when I give a direction or even when I ask the students, "What do you think you need to do now?" and they show no response, and keep right on talking or doing their own thing. I get very frustrated by that and brought it up in a class meeting. All of them agreed that they should be listening and even listed a few things to try but no one feels bound to their agreement when they are in the middle of the problem. Thanks again for your help and encouragement,

Hi Valerie, One more thing. Remember that kids don't learn math or reading in a day, a week, or a month. You wouldn't get frustrated if your kids didn't learn a complicated subject the first time. It will take them awhile to learn respect and problem-solving. You will feel less frustrated if you don't expect too much too soon. Try focusing on what they do better. For example, "I noticed you used your listening skills for 10 minutes today. Thank you. How many think you can do even better tomorrow?" Keep building on successes instead of failures. Take care, Jane Nelsen

Valerie, In reading your response, two things come up for me. 
First: you say you are trying to "balance" kindness and firmness. A lot of parents and teachers get into trouble trying to create that "balancing act." Because you want to be nice to the kids.....until you can't stand their behavior...and then you decide you were "too nice" and get "firmer"...until you don't like yourself...and you go back and forth just trying to get the right balance. The KEY is using kindness and firmness at the SAME TIME. What that means is being setting limits with kindness. It is a little bit like what Jacki talked about with your tone of voice. You don't plead or put yourself in a one down situation "being nice". You don't boss or put yourself in a one-up position "being firm"...you work from a level, matter of fact position -with warmth. Kids respect that position because they feel respected.
Second: If the kids are not responding to you, there is something going on with your "presence." That has to do with you asking from a subtle one-down position. As if they are doing you a favor to respond. If you pull yourself (internally) up to their level and act like you mean what you say (without meanness, yelling...but just that sense of self confidence about what the expectations are for the room) you will get a different result.

One last suggestion. Suzanne Smitha devised a wonderful activity called "Beginning the Almost Perfect School Year" which is a way for the students to look at what they want and how to get it. I know you have already started, but the activity gets great buy-in for your grade level for some classroom guidelines.
Jane has the activity and your email address, so maybe she can send it to you.

Keep up the good work.

Jody McVittie.
PS Have you seen Positive Discipline in the Christian Home? It might be a good one to help the parents of your students buy into your system. 

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