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.
So, Trevor is in trouble at school. It’s time to contact his parents.
You want to get the parents to work with you to find a solution, so keep in mind that you are talking about an emotional issue–the welfare of their child. This conversation relies on your communication skills and ability to empathize. Hopefully you have had some of the positive contacts with Trevor’s parents, like those mentioned in Part One, before this problem arose and you have to make the call home. This foundation of positive experiences serves you well when you have to contact parents about unpleasant situations and field their calls and visits when they are unhappy. This helps you go into the situation with the frame of mind and self-confidence that something good will come of your joint efforts.
As the teacher (the professional in the relationship), you can do a lot to make these kinds of phone calls and meetings successful. You have the power to set a positive, respectful climate conducive to problem-solving. Being prepared boosts self-confidence and your chances for success, so take time to prepare for the call or meeting. You are more relaxed and communicate more effectively if you know what you want to say and how to say it in a straightforward, kind way. You are also better situated to actively listen to the parent.
When there is a problem or concern:
- Wait until you calm down before you call.
- Choose your words carefully; use non-labeling words that describe the situation instead of disparage the child, especially if you are sending something to the parents in writing, including email.
- Review what you want to say.
- Keep in mind that if the problem happened at school, the school has the primary responsibility to solve it, not the parent; you are looking for insight and help.
Initiating the Call or Meeting:
- Have a paper and pen ready to take notes.
- Take a minute to put yourself in the parent’s place.
- Be friendly, polite, and professional and begin the call on a congenial note.
- Address parents by their correct name (check the records first).
- Be aware of cultural differences.
- Share your genuine concern for the child and your wish to work toward a solution.
- Convey that you want to help through your choice of words and tone of voice.
- Be honest and tactful. Avoid blaming or making accusations that put the parent on the defensive.
- Establish a calm, professional climate.
Discussing the Issue:
- Calmly explain the situation and/or have the child explain it.
- Let the parent talk and listen carefully to what he or she says in words and between the lines.
- Jot down ideas during the conversation.
- Put a realistic, yet encouraging, spin on being able to solve the problem.
- React calmly to parents if they are upset; keep in control of your own emotions and responses.
- Invite them to come in to talk if they would like.
- In person look at body language, facial expressions, and signs of agitation and relaxation.
- Assure them that you know it is not easy for them to hear their child has a problem.
- Ask them if they have any thoughts about what happened.
- Listen to them and stay understanding of their perspective.
- Confidently share your professional assessment of the issue. Educate the parent to the possibilities, and make suggestions.
- Remain professional and positive.
Finding a Solution:
- Share school expectations, services, and policies.
- Ask about approaches that work at home.
- Discuss the approach you will use.
- In a tactful way, discourage suggestions for punishment and other non-productive ideas.
- Set a time to check back with each other to see how the plan is working.
- Ask them if they have any more questions.
- Thank them for their support of the plan and for working with you.
- Remain professional and positive
Concluding the Contact:
- Have a three-way meeting with the child to explain how you and his parents are working together to help him make better choices.
- Send a letter home that summarizes the problem and the solution, and that thanks them for their help (run it by a colleague or principal first).
- Sign and date it, and keep a copy for yourself.
- Implement the plan and do what you can to help the child be successful.
- Provide progress reports to the child and parents.
- Contact the parents at the agreed upon time to assess how the plan worked, and make changes if needed.
- Stay in touch.
- Remain professional and positive.
You need parents and they need you, and your students need both of you. If you work confidently from a place of professional expertise, openness, and empathy, with the belief that parents love their children and ultimately want to do what is best for them, you will make parents feel welcome and valued and you will discover the power of a strong parent/teacher partnership.
Trevor is in trouble at school.
You are Trevor’s teacher. What is going through your mind when you place the call to Trevor’s parent?
You are Trevor’s parent. What is going through your mind when you get the call from Trevor’s teacher?
You are Trevor. What is going through your mind when your teacher tells you she’ll be calling your parents and when you hear the phone ring?
What did the experience look like from the perspective of each participant? How would perspectives impact each person’s choice of behavior as they deal with the problem? One of the common feelings is fear. Maybe the teacher doesn’t like delivering bad news, especially when she doesn’t know the parent and isn’t sure how he will react. Maybe the call upsets the parent who is also having problems with the child at home and he is worried that you think he is a bad parent. Maybe…Trevor is scared about being punished both at school and at home,. He knows the home punishment will be physical.
Fear and insecurity are major impediments to developing a relationship. We do not know what the parent’s earlier experience with school has been and how they view schools as an institution and teachers in general. But we can imagine what it may be like for parents to get dressed for a meeting at school, to go into the building, check in at the office, walk down the hall, wait until it is time to go in, walk into the classroom, sit down across from the teacher, and then listen to what she has to say about their child. Many things could be going through the parent’s mind- and your mind- to make you both distrustful and on edge. This fear and insecurity can manifest in defensiveness with a poor choice of words, harsh language, aggressive body language and facial expressions, raised voices, and, in the extreme, threats of violence, and it interferes with meeting the goal: to help the child take responsibility for his actions and do better in the future.
The Good Before the Bad
Since teachers are responsible for keeping parents informed about their children’s progress, successes, and transgressions, they need excellent communication skills. Trevor’s situation would be more comfortable and productive if the teacher had already experienced a few positive interactions with the parent. Casual and newsy communications help the teacher and the parent become familiar with each other. The interactions reduce those understandable fears and develop a level of trust that lets them work as a team for the child. The trick is to use the positional power that comes with being the teacher through a lens of empathy and compassion.
The goal then is to do things that set up a foundation of trust that creates a working partnership between teacher and parents, which ultimately benefits the child. Here are some ways to do this.
- For younger students, make home visits or send them postcards before school starts.
- Send home a welcome letter that expresses your hopes and expectations for your year together and that invites parents to participate.
- Use a system of student agenda books or folders sent home daily that includes homework assignments, notices, personal notes, and a place for parents and teachers to communicate with each other.
- Write or have the children write a class newsletter or Friday note to take home.
- Design homework assignments that involve parents in a fun, meaningful way.
- Host a mini open house for your classroom or grade level a couple of times during the year.
- Use parents as classroom volunteers to help with projects, read with students, chaperone field trips, share their knowledge, talents, and jobs.
- Invite parents to visit the classroom for small performances such as dramatic presentations of a story or an author’s tea.
- Welcome parents to parent/teacher conferences by putting chairs and a desk outside the classroom where they can wait.
- Include some books and school projects for them to look at while they are waiting, and maybe a bowl of hard candy for a dry, nervous mouth. (This works for you, too!)
- And one of my favorites…the good news contact: make random phone calls and send notes home that celebrate the child’s successes or to just show appreciation for who they are.
Parents are concerned about their children, and so are we; they have a profound responsibility, and so do we; they know a lot about what makes their child tick, and so do we; they want a bright future for their child, and so do we. It is just plain natural that we should work together as a team.
Part Two: Preparing for a successful parent call or meeting.
*Parents is a generic term for those who have custodial responsibility for the child.
A Return to Common Sense and Reason
The US Department of Education recently condemned zero-tolerance discipline policies in schools. Time and experience have proven zero-tolerance policies-where all degrees of discipline issues are treated in a rigid, cause-effect way-are ineffective at reducing violence and teaching our students a better way to live and treat others. With this shift in public policy, we are now ready to build a more humane and hopeful approach to school discipline and violence prevention, one where reasonable and consistent discipline policies and practices build relationships and a positive school climate, not destroy them.
Where did the idea of using zero-tolerance in our schools come from?
The zero-tolerance policies enacted in the 1990s were a well-intentioned response to a growing concern about the presence of illegal drugs, alcohol, and firearms on school campuses. The Gun Free Schools Act of 1994 implemented a nationwide law mandating a one-year expulsion for students who were proven to have brought a firearm or other weapon to school. Over time, some states and school districts expanded zero-tolerance policies to include a range of behaviors including illegal drugs, insubordination, and bullying and they became the disciplinary approach of choice from kindergarten to high school.
Unfortunately after all these years, researchers have found that such punitive threats do little to deter violent behavior and often exacerbate a problematic situation. Automatic rigid penalties such as suspensions and expulsions:
- Prevent schools from considering context and individual circumstances.
- Damage relationships and chip away at the climate of the school.
- Are disproportionate to race and socio-economic status, and students with special educational needs.
- Encourage adults to give up on “problem” students.
- Do nothing to encourage interventions that could help change students’ behavior, save them from dropping out of school, and keep them from continuing to act violently and winding up in jail.
- Can look foolishly misguided as in the case of the suspension of a kindergarten child for bringing a weapon to school (a dinner knife), or a first grader for sexually harassing a classmate (kissing her during recess).
By ignoring context and circumstances, zero-tolerance policies had a disproportional and negative impact on African-American and Latino students and were often a path to more trouble and imprisonment. The policies disregarded the reality that a student’s life experiences and the type of community he lives in profoundly affect his understanding of what is and is not acceptable behavior. At times home and neighborhood give a context for behavior that would be out of line in a school and, in the same way, school approved behaviors might seem foreign and impractical given the home environment.
Children face an internal conflict in trying to live successfully in these two very different worlds. This results in the alienation of students raised in toxic environments and who find themselves in a school culture that contradicts their own norms. They get in trouble more easily and more often for using the survival skills they have adopted in response to a culture of violence where emotional and physical force is the everyday means of dealing with conflict. Their behavior is as much about self-preservation as it would be for a soldier in a war zone.
It bears reinforcing that when we consider circumstances it does not mean we accept inappropriate behavior: Violent and disruptive behavior are still serious and must be stopped. Standards for behavior are kept high, all misbehavior is consistently addressed, and the safety of students and staff remains the top priority. Yet we are mindful that every inappropriate behavior is not of the same seriousness and does not deserve the same response.
One-Size Discipline Does Not Fit All
The more alienated the student, the greater the feeling of powerlessness and the greater the effort needed to reach out to help him develop that critical missing connection to the school and to those in it. So, we can be more effective by being more thoughtful. In place of zero-tolerance policies we can use our broad understanding of violence as a continuum of behaviors- emotional and physical, subtle to obvious – to address violence in all its forms and to understand its patterns. Then we can intervene early. And when we do intervene we can be compassionate and fair in our expectations, and work with students to replace their learned violent behaviors with socially acceptable alternatives, each according to need. It’s both logical and natural to treat individuals in the way that is most effective for them, to meet them where they are in their development, to help them grow in self-discipline and self-control, and to learn constructive ways to get their needs met. We take this approach to skill building for academics, learning an instrument, in sports, etc, so why not for behavior? We consider context and understand each circumstance and that the child is still learning.
Inconsistent responses to acts of violence (a behavior is okay for one group of students but not for another, or the behavior is not always addressed) and “ zero tolerance” policies that react rigidly to categories of behavior cause students and families to regard school rules and staff with skepticism. They see school and the administrators and teachers as unresponsive and even discriminatory. They lose faith in the educational system, or see their preconceived opinions about the school reinforced. These missteps undermine our efforts to build the trust with children and their families needed to change inappropriate behavior.
And to what end? A comprehensive policy research report on the effect of zero tolerance policies and practices found “an almost complete lack of evidence that zero tolerance is among the strategies capable of accomplishing that objective (reducing violent and illegal behavior). Researcher Russell Skiba concluded, “One can only hope for the development and application of more effective, less intrusive alternatives for preserving the safety of our nation’s schools.”
A Better Way
School education lawyer Dean Pickett understood the concept of context when he called for a more reasonable approach, which involves “zero tolerance for behavior but not zero thinking.” The addition of thinking and using our judgment allows administrators and other school adults to consider context and circumstances, and intent and history of the student to decide the most fair and effective response.
These fair responses offered through caring, concerned relationships are what we owe our students and how we can best effect change in their attitudes and behavior. This is what I would want if I found myself in trouble.
Is anyone listening?
Writing is a solitary pursuit and publishing your writing is a leap of faith. Without a direct connection with an audience it is easy to wonder…Do people care about school climate? Do I have something important to say about school violence? Do I offer new insights that help us improve the school experience for students? Do my posts inspire others to reevaluate and take action?
Thanks to this WordPress annual report of my blog activity for 2013, I know the answer is yes. Schoolclimate.com had 3,500 views this year. I had no idea so many people visited my site, especially since I am not the most prolific blogger and seem to average one post a month.
Blogger or Essayist?
Blogger probably isn’t the right word for what I do. I think I am more of an essayist. I don’t maintain my blog site regularly. I am inspired to write when I feel I have something important to say. It doesn’t have to be important with a capital I; it could just be a different perspective on an old topic or a new idea I had about something to try. Things that are thought-provoking, enlightening, and disturbing spur my posts. When I do write it is from my deep commitment to keep the conversation going and to generate positive change.
While I enjoyed writing each post, I am especially pleased that my most popular post was New School Year Tip: Create a no sarcasm zone. Eliminating sarcasm is a foundation for a school climate that teaches respectful communication and nurtures positive relationships among students and between teachers and students. The topic of sarcasm clearly resonated with readers and that tells us people do care about making our schools the emotionally and physically safe havens we owe our children.
So thanks and happy new year to my regular followers and to all the Internet searchers who found me. You made this a good year for schoolclimate.com. Energized by the stats, I will continue to write about topics that inspire me and I hope, in turn, interest and inspire you. In fact, I already have one brewing to start the new year!
Here is the WordPress.com 2013 annual statistics report for my blog.
Here’s an excerpt:
A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 3,500 times in 2013. If it were a cable car, it would take about 58 trips to carry that many people.