Tuesday, February 3, 2015

A New Kind of Disciplined Thinking

We must all suffer one of two things: the pain of discipline or the pain of regret or disappointment. Jim Rohn

I have been an assistant principal, in one form or another, for over 15 years.  In that time, whenever I meet new people and discussion makes it's way to what I do for a living, the next part of the conversation invariably comes around to one of the following things:
  • "Oh, I hope my kid never gets to know you very well."
  • "I could never do that job, "those" kids would drive me crazy."
  • "Don't you get tired of just dealing with problems all the time?"
  • "Kids these days... they are so much worse than when we were kids..."
Etc. Etc.

If I were to ask you to define "discipline" in the context of schools, what would come to mind?
  • Crime and Punishment?
  • Detentions, Suspensions, Expulsions?
  • Ensuring compliance and order?

In my career, I have never looked at things through that lens.  In a recent podcast, I discussed the philosophical constructs of how I have addressed discipline issues. The approach of simply following the prescribed punishments in the book for student transgressions, seems not only old fashioned, but statistically speaking, would appear to be highly ineffective.

I have always felt that creating meaningful relationships with students is the most effective discipline strategy that we can use to decrease behaviors that endanger the safety of our schools and the educational process in our classrooms. Students who feel connected and safe in schools are far less likely to cause harm there and statistically perform better in class as well.

In my experience, those students who are constantly in a detention/suspension spiral are more often looking for attention and acceptance than they are anarchy.  After all, good or bad attention... it's still attention, and also a chance for someone to notice you, and a chance to let someone know what's going on in your life- if you trust them enough to let them in.  In my experience, students are far more likely to care about disappointing someone who they care about than they are to worry about a detention or suspension.  If you, as the assistant principal, can become someone who those students care about, how much more effective can you be?

I would ask you, how are the top 25 students who are most referred to your office for discipline doing academically in your school? How effective are those detentions, suspensions, etc in changing their behaviors? 

When you really think about it, do you think that suspending those students from academic participation is more or less likely to help them succeed in school? Do you believe that it will curb further behaviors? Has it so far?

Or is it more likely that falling further behind academically will create a greater feeling of disenfranchisement, hopelessness and a defeated attitude that will likely lead to more issues for that student and your school? Then why are you relying on those kinds of punishments to change those behaviors?

What if we shifted that notion of what school discipline is to a different definition of discipline?  The kind of discipline that we all react well to when it's used.  The kind of discipline that elicits our respect when we speak of it, rather than fear and derision. DisciplineTraining expected to produce a specific character or pattern of behavior, especially training that produces moral or mental improvement. 

In a previous blog post I addressed the importance of relationships in education. As I said to pre-service teachers in that post: The reality is that if you can't convince kids that you care about them, that they can trust you, that they are safe taking risks in your classroom, and that failing is an important part of learning and that it's OK, then none of that other stuff matters.  

Shouldn't that be the same for your assistant principal? Rather than being the draconian figure who metes out discipline from a manual, what if you tried to understand what was going on in that student's life? What if you knew them well? What if they knew that you cared about them? Even better, what if they cared about you and how their actions affect you and your professional standing? Partly through those kinds of relationships, our school has seen a dramatic change in behaviors as we have shifted to a school culture built on a foundation of student engagement, kindness and appreciation of one another.

From the 2012-13 school year to the 2013-14 school year, EGHS decreased student suspensions by 53%, with totals significantly below all of the state's high schools with similar demographics.  Also, we reduced the number of students with 10 or more unexcused absences by 50% in that same year.  In no small part by creating, nurturing and participating in a culture of appreciation and caring.

But that wasn't enough.  We needed to keep changing.  So we are. 

What if instead of simply suspending students, you found opportunities for that student to not only explain why they broke that rule or violated that trust, but gave them (and their parents) an opportunity to hear how their actions affected others?  What if, instead of excluding them from academic participation, you gave them an opportunity to make amends and repair that relationship? 

You might provide them with an opportunity to learn not only Shakespeare and Algebra II, but empathy, communication skills and the importance of backing up words with actions. You can learn a lot of things in schools, and not all of it is covered in the Common Core.

We are starting to change our approach to suspendible offenses at East Greenwich High School through a practice that we are currently calling restorative justice (until we come up with a better phrase).

In cases where a discipline infraction has occurred and a relationship with another party has been harmed (theft, assault, disorderly conduct in a classroom), where historically an immediate suspension would result, we have instead found a new process to attempt to not only change that behavior, but repair the relationship.

In lieu of a suspension, parents are immediately contacted and the following occurs:

  1. The student and their parents are required to come to a meeting with an administrator and any other members of the school community that were affected by that student's actions.
  2. The administrator reviews the facts of the event, so that everyone is clear. Anyone may then add to or clarify the facts of the situation so that everyone is in agreement about what occurred.
  3. All parties who were affected by the student's transgression are asked to speak plainly, unfiltered, and honestly about how they felt at the time and how those actions affected and/or continue to affect them.
  4. The parents of the student who committed the infraction are then allowed an opportunity to discuss how they feel about everything they have seen and heard to that point.
  5. The student is then allowed an opportunity to discuss what they did and to apologize or speak about why they did what they did and/or to offer clarification of their side of the story.
  6. Finally, an opportunity to make amends is discussed by all parties to come up with a strategy, an action or a method of repairing the relationship, one that can be followed through on immediately.
We have utilized this strategy on seven occasions over the last two months and it can be an emotional experience for all involved. It is powerful, and the effects are lasting and effective to this point. I can not say that for the traditional detention/suspension parade that we (and likely you) primarily have used over the last 40-50 years.

We are also working with diverse members of our student body to see how they may be better utilized in the discipline process. They may be utilized to review issues and provide ideas for future relationship reparations, to act as a sounding board, or to give feedback on the effectiveness of practices related to school discipline. As they are subject to our policies and procedures, it makes sense to get their feedback on the effectiveness of those practices and to hear their ideas for improvement.

School communities, like all communities are about relationships. When those relationships are damaged, we can work to repair them, we can teach empathy and understanding, or we can shun and exclude people from the community to everyone's detriment.

If we really are committed to our students meeting with success in academics and in life, sometimes what needs most to be suspended are traditional approaches to solving problems - especially when we already know they don't work.