If we don’t suspend them, what do we do? We constructively work to break the vicious cycle of violence.
It is a challenge to teach children the skills they need to stop choosing negative behavior when many of them do not have the emotional security required to make healthy choices. Instead of nurturing, trusting, and consistent relationships with loving adults, they have a hyper-vigilant emotional foundation that comes from a variety of factors, including a life of neglect, abuse, family conflicts, poverty, substance abuse, and unsafe neighborhoods. A vicious cycle revolves around the insecurity of their personal situation, which makes them more distrustful and susceptible to the culture of violence, which then leads to harmful behaviors that only perpetuate the lack of emotional security.
In this environment, many young people develop a matter-of-fact view of violence and death. They might not think what they are doing is wrong or understand what they should do instead; it conflicts with what they know is true in their real life. To protect themselves they respond the best they can to the harsh lessons they learn early in life. Without the social bonds and trust that come from a safe and caring family and with many of their basic needs not met, children fight to survive in unhealthy violent ways. The resulting coping mechanisms can persist into adulthood.
Dr. James Garbarino, in Lost Boys, describes the background of men on death row this way:
“Each of these men had been subjected to extreme child maltreatment, yet none received mental health treatment once that victimization was substantiated by the state child protective services agency. I could not help but think that if any one of these young men had been taken hostage by a terrorist group and tortured for years, there would have been no question about their need for and entitlement to mental health services upon their release. Yet we did not provide the same services to these ‘hostages’ once they were released from their tormentors. And now we intended to execute them” (Garbarino 1999)
One size does not fit all when we consider that young people’s anti-social, self-harming behaviors -gang membership, alcohol and other drug use, vandalism, theft, early sexual behavior, physical violence-is an understandable, though not desired, reaction to a life of neglect and abuse. Targeted early intervention with mental health professionals is essential when a child’s anti-social behavior is a reaction to coping with a personal life of pervasive violence. This is where the school, more than ever, needs to be a safe haven where the negative forces of a child’s life outside the school do not carry over into the educational environment.
Why are some children resilient against these negative forces?
Research shows that two-thirds of students living in dire conditions rise above and succeed in spite of their circumstances. What does this two-thirds have that the other one-third is missing? We can prevent or mitigate the negative effects of a high-risk childhood by providing assets that build the network of support and the personal efficacy that are characteristic of survivors of toxic environments. These assets benefit all children and are critical for the most vulnerable. They include:
- · Caring relationships.
- · High expectations.
- · Meaningful participation.
- · Autonomy and sense of self.
- · Sense of meaning and purpose.
(California Healthy Kids Survey 1999)
A study on the relationship between student and teacher safety and the nature of the school and home community in the Chicago Public Schools found this is true. (Steinberg et al. 2011) Controlling for academic achievement and type of neighborhood (crime and poverty levels), the schools with the highest suspension rates were less safe than those with low suspension rates. Researchers discovered that the neighborhood in which the school was located was not as influential as the students’ home neighborhood. The primary difference between schools that felt safe and those that did not was the quality of the relationships between school staff and students and parents. It depended on what happened inside the four walls of the school. The study concluded, “disadvantaged schools with high-quality relationships actually feel safer than advantaged schools with low-quality relationships.”
In addition, the report noted that a relationship exists between student low academic achievement and increased problems with school safety and order. Schools with a population of low-achieving students experience higher rates of violence. This finding supports growing research that recommends schools focus on raising the literacy rates of young children, adolescents, and adults to reduce violence in schools and in the community. (Jalloh 2009) Research on aggressive behavior, high school drop-out rates, crime, incarceration and recidivism, unemployment, and poverty show a positive correlation between these negative outcomes and poor literacy skills, especially among Latino and African-American men. The literacy-violence connection has been widely documented and the results show this aggression begins in the primary grades when children first experience frustration when trying to learn to read.
To succeed at academics, students need cognitive confidence (ability to read fluently with comprehension), text confidence (stamina to read increasingly difficult material), and social and emotional confidence (positive attitude and enjoyment of reading) (Jalloh 2009, 3) Students who have many negative risk factors in their lives need an intentional school support system and targeted early intervention efforts to teach literacy, math, and technology skills. Without this support these children become disengaged underachievers who stop trying, turn to violence to get what they need, leave school before they graduate, and live a life of poverty and crime. This reality reinforces the need for school-wide, intentional efforts to improve the interactions and relationships among staff, children, and families, and make the connection to academic success.
Teachers know we can intervene early and change this pattern. The Chicago Public Schools study gives credence to the belief that the way we relate to our students is the critical factor in reducing school violence and improving academic performance. A secure climate is necessary for children to take risks and learn. It is in our power to create a secure, caring climate that addresses the academic and social-emotional needs of our students and builds resilience against negative circumstances, regardless of their neighborhood of origin. And when there is a problem, we need to handle it thoughtfully and appropriately within the context of the student and the circumstances. One-size fits all rigid discipline policies do not work.
In Part Three we’ll see how there are better options that teach, in a lasting way, self-discipline, taking responsibility for one’s choices, restitution, and that result in better decision making in the future.
Part Three: Instead of zero-tolerance, use early intervention, mediation and restorative justice.
Take a minute to think…
How do you feel when your students walk into your classroom? What do you see when you look at them? What is going through your mind? What do you expect to happen?
The answers reveal your core beliefs and attitudes about children and being a teacher, and you might not even be aware you feel this way.
How we consciously and unconsciously treat our students is not lost on them, and we wind up getting what we expect. The lens we look through determines how they respond to us and how we experience our time with them. Nowhere is an optimistic, generous attitude more important than in what goes on between a parent and a child, and a teacher and a student. And we are responsible for what happens under our watch.
If we approach teaching with the attitude that students are a problem because they:
- don’t listen
- are disrespectful
- refuse to take responsibility
- have no manners
- don’t want to learn
- can’t be trusted
- need to be managed
…we interpret all that happens in this light. We expect them to not listen, to take advantage if given some freedom, to show no interest in what we are teaching, and to need strict discipline. They can tell how we feel, and their attitude toward us and school reflects the messages we send:
We are adversaries struggling for control.
But if we believe students are precious human beings that are:
- inherently good
- sensitive and vulnerable
- interested in learning new things
- responsive to encouragement
- capable of learning better behavior
- at our mercy
…we treat them with compassion and concern. We expect good things from them, believe in our power to influence, see all the positives, the growth, the breakthroughs, and, the sometimes ever so slight, continuous progress. They can tell we like and enjoy them and their attitude reflects this:
We are collaborators sharing power.
These essential understandings are simple but not simplistic. We know that how we treat others and how they treat us determine our relationships with them. We also know that sometimes when we are in the midst of all the demands and stresses of teaching and life, we forget that the basics of a positive working relationship are mutual care and concern, and that we get what we model and expect.
We want good things to happen in our classroom and, if we show and expect, we will get back:
- And teamwork
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:
- What behavior got you here?
- Why was that behavior a problem?
- What could you choose to do instead next time?
- 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.
The Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
A familiar, simple ethic. But is it enough?
This basic tenet of reciprocity– mutual care and concern –has been embraced by civilizations and religions for thousands of years. The many wordings all share a common vision of how human beings should treat each other. The message is this: If I do not like something, I will not do it to someone else.
We teach the Golden Rule everywhere – in our homes, in our faiths, and in our schools – and it is a good place to start, but, no, it isn’t enough. For children (and all of us!) to internalize the deeper meaning of the concept, we have to go beyond this egocentric view to a promise of:
mutual care and concern at multiple levels…
that of the individual,
of one’s culture,
and of all of humanity.
With this change in perspective, we see how the Golden Rule is one of empathy, based on mutual concern and care that applies to individual preferences, cultural expectations, and basic human rights.
This broadened understanding means we can put ourselves in another’s place, see life through their eyes, and have a better idea of what is right for them. With a concept of reciprocity we go beyond parroting an axiom to true appreciation for the most fundamental and virtuous of character traits: empathy. And empathy leads to respectful and compassionate conduct toward others.
This New Golden Rule of Empathy gives us these peace-building principles to live by:
- I would not like you to ignore my personal wishes and feelings, so I will honor your personal wishes and feelings and expect you to honor mine.
- My culture may have different beliefs and customs from yours, so I will respect your culture and expect you to respect mine.
- Regardless of my individual perspectives and preferences or the norms of my culture, all people have basic human rights, and I will honor these rights and expect others to do so for me.