Back to School Tip: Create and apply the rules together

Obedience or Rights and Responsibilities?

As we set up our classrooms and start the new school year, we need rules that motivate students from within. Encouraging high personal standards in our students takes more than positing a chart of the classroom rules. It requires a positive approach to discipline that:

  • teaches responsibility (intrinsic motivation) over time
  • rather than merely expects obedience (extrinsic motivation).

Children are more likely to follow guidelines for behavior (rules) that they had a role in developing, understand, and view as fair. The school, classroom, and home are the most natural and logical places to give children an active role in defining what it means to be a contributing member of a well-functioning community. This includes defining and living according to the rights and responsibilities shared by all members of the group. They learn rules are not arbitrary and mean, but helpful guidelines for getting along with each other.

Classroom management based on personal responsibility is more effective than traditional authoritarian control. The obedience model sends the message that students must follow the rules that adults impose without question regardless of the students’ ideas of right and wrong, special needs or circumstances, instincts and experiences. The message from adults is, You must behave in a certain way because I have the power and I tell you to do it. The obedience model says, Here is the list of what you can and cannot do. The responsibility model tells children, I believe you know what is right and wrong and can do better. I will help you respect others and take responsibility for your choices.

The Obedience Model

Obedience develops behavior motivated by an external locus of control instead of an internal conscience. If a student’s primary goal is to avoid being caught and getting in trouble, this can motivate him to hide or lie about his behavior.  If caught, he may blame it on someone else or try to get even with the enforcer. This creates an adversarial and disrespectful environment that damages the single most important factor for a safe and effective school climate: positive relationships among members.

Obedience may tempt teachers and parents with:

  • The power of an absolute authority.
  • A sense that they have the power and control over their children.
  • A predetermined comprehensive list of rules and matching punishments.
  • Some hope of keeping children “in line.”
  • And the most alluring of all–compliance.

But a focus on obedience also leads to children who:

  • Lack emotional maturity and self-discipline.
  • Cannot own up to their choices and fix the messes they make.
  • Are not able to think critically or problem solve and make decisions.
  • Feel powerless and frustrated.
  • Withdraw or “act out.”
  • Blame others for their behavior.
  • Engage in power struggles.
  • And the last thing we want to promote: act in aggressive ways – covertly and overtly.

The Rights and Responsibility Model

Compare this to another message that is communicated to students: We respect you as an individual with basic needs and hopes, and we believe you have or can develop the skills to make constructive choices. We understand the context of your life and will hold you to a high standard while we guide you to being successful.

Such a climate, based on rights and responsibilities, offers teachers:

  • Healthy relationships with students.
  • Satisfying interactions and more time to teach.
  • Less frustration and more success with handling misbehavior.
  • A redefinition of their role from warden to mentor.
  • A sharing of power.
  • Steady progress toward accomplishing meaningful goals.
  • The chance to take discipline off the top of their list of concerns.

And it leads to students and eventually to citizens who:

  • Are motivated from within.
  • Have a sense of right and wrong.
  • Are critical and creative problem-solvers who make healthy choices.
  • Work toward the good of the community.
  • Are not afraid to take the emotional and intellectual risks needed to learn.
  • Recognize and respect the rights of others.
  • Act ethically.
  • Stand up for what they believe is right.
  • Take responsibility and fix any messes they make.

The rights and responsibilities approach asks students to develop the rules together. They discuss how they should behave in the classroom and school in order for everyone to get along, feel safe, and have an opportunity to learn. They can describe what the perfect classroom would be like and use that as the basis of a code of conduct. Students then come together to see the rationale behind behavior guidelines and understand the cause and effect of their actions.

When a child breaks a rule or code of conduct, we keep the focus on building the child’s self-control and remember that we are there to teach. We want them to develop an internal guidance system, and not to behave well just because we are watching. We can ask them to apply the New Golden Rule of Empathy – Do unto others as they would like you to do unto  them – when they find themselves in a challenging situation. And rather than imposing punishment, we use a verbal or written behavior plan that teaches problem solving and builds character by asking these questions:

  1. What behavior got you here?
  2. Why was that behavior a problem?
  3. What could you choose to do instead next time?
  4. How will you make amends for your behavior now?

With this type of positive discipline, children learn that:

  • Adults do care about them and want them to do well.
  • Everyone shares the same basic human rights.
  • Rules define how they should behave in a learning community.
  • What they say and do is who they are.
  • They have the personal power and responsibility to make good choices.
  • If they cause of problem, they have to fix it.
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Posted on September 4, 2012, in Ideas to try, Perspectives and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. To me, this seems to all boil down to respect…and respect is the foundation of all positive, mutually supportive relationships. Love it!

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