"If my students had in their heads the information and understanding I have in my head; they would act as I act. Getting that information to them is a communication procedure requiring a relationship of mutual trust and respect."
by Bill Page
The term discipline has become a sort of "garbage" term because it communicates little or nothing meaningful. There are authors who try to assert it, dignify it, control it, train it, punish it, reward it, go beyond it, cooperate with it, and manage it. There are those who want to do it with love, tough love, logic, consequences, common sense; and those who would do it judiciously, gently, effectively, collaboratively, positively, as tough as necessary, without stress. And one who offers us "user-friendly" discipline.
For many classroom teachers, discipline means managing behavior problems or classroom control. It is equated with obedience (or disobedience) or "minding" the teacher, and it is used to deal with "how to get kids to shut up, sit down, pay attention, follow directions, and at least act interested."
Judging from its use, discipline has come to mean, "Whatever you are doing when you think you are disciplining." Given this perspective, here is, "What I think I am doing when I think I am disciplining:"
In any community, including a group of people in a classroom, there is a standard of behavior that permits the group to function according to its avowed purpose. Therefore, discipline is a process for classroom members to affect, monitor, control and cope with the behavior of its members-not all behaviors-just those that affect the avowed purpose. And, there are only two ways I have ever found to control or manage behavior in the classroom. One way is to have the teacher be responsible for control, to have an authoritarian, unilateral set of rules that reflects the teacher's needs and expectations.
The other way is to utilize the principles of democratic relationships. Classroom control and management are a function of individual rights in relation to group rights, where those who are affected by the rules participate in the rules. This discipline comes from the individuals, teacher, and students with the teacher responsible for teaching classroom decision-making based on a one-person one-vote basis of meeting the needs of the group. The teacher is also responsible for the initial class structure that establishes the democratic procedures.
As a teacher, there are only two ways I have ever found to control the behavior of my kids, and one of the ways doesn't really work. I only throw in the way that doesn't work so I can throw it out and because so many teachers use it. The way that doesn't work is the use of behavior modification, manipulation, coercion, force, intimidation, reward, praise, punishment, threat, bribe, reinforcement (negative or positive), seduction, trickery, molding, deceiving, shaping, or combinations or variations thereof. Actually, it does work--but only temporarily, very inefficiently, and inappropriately for our classrooms, our objectives, and our students.
Certainly, there are times when force is necessary and desirable, just as it is in our society as a whole. We have armed forces, police, prisons, mental institutions, etc, and thank goodness we have ways to control drug dealers, lunatics and evil people in our communities, in our schools and our hallways and playgrounds. But, to the extent that we are concerned as teachers with long term, permanent changes in student responsibility, attitudes, beliefs, self-actualization, self-discipline, maturity, values and independence, force, even in its most subtle forms is inappropriate, undesirable and counterproductive.
The other way...
The only other way that I, as a teacher, can control kids' behavior is to help them see it differently so that he or she can control him or herself. If kids saw it differently, they would behave differently. If they saw what I saw, they would do what I do. In a classroom community, what I do affects others, and what others do affects me. How are problems and conflicts resolved if the effect is undesirable or unacceptable? One way is for the teacher resolve it; the other is to have the group, including the teacher, resolve it.
Behavior is a symptom. Behavior is a manifestation of an individual's thoughts, perceptions and understandings. The cause of behavior lies within the individual's beliefs, attitudes, values and feelings. Behavior is the result of his or her perceptions. When a kid changes the way he or she sees things, his or her behavior will change accordingly.
Helping a student change the causes of his or her behavior is difficult because it cannot be changed directly. As a teacher I can only provide experiences or information by which the student sees a need, or can be influenced to see things differently. The more ingrained the perceptions or the stronger the beliefs, the more difficult it is to change. Furthermore, the behavior is within the control of the "behaver" and requires his or her cooperation for that behavior to change. We need a cooperative relationship that includes mutual respect, open communication, democratic values and equality as human beings.
With all of these considerations, it is necessary for the teacher to establish or develop a relationship with the "behaver." It is this relationship that can allow the teacher to facilitate the changes in feelings, beliefs, attitudes and understandings. Ideally, the relationship would be a growing, improving, long range, learning relation with shared objectives and mutual trust. The teacher to student relationship is a model for precisely what the student to student and student to group relationship will be or will become.
Suppose a ninth grade student stood up suddenly in the middle of my class presentation and from his seat in the back part of the room, called me a series of vulgar, profane names. The process I would use, the reaction I would have, and the considerations I would make are these: first, I would determine my goal or my priorities by asking myself questions:
- Do I want him to stop calling me names?
- Do I want him to learn not to call me names?
- Do I want him to learn a better way to deal with me in this situation?
- Am I more concerned with his behavior, his profanity, my ego or the other students?
- What are his perceptions that caused him to see this action as appropriate?
The important question would be, "What are the causes of this behavior?" My job as a teacher is to help him learn, grow and improve his behavior; to be more responsible for his actions. My job is not to control his behavior. It is to teach him to control his own behavior.
If my goal were to teach him not to call me names, I would consider that the calling of names is a symptom of whatever is going on inside of him. Out of all the reasoning power available to him, out of all the information he possesses, out of all his thinking, feelings, values and beliefs he holds, it seemed appropriate to him to stand up and call me names, as evidenced by the fact that he did it. (If his goal were to show his anger, or frustration, he could have done any number of things other than to call me names.)
If he thinks that behavior is appropriate, if he sees that as a way to let me know he is upset, but I do not think it is appropriate, then what is there that I know, or think or believe that makes me think it is inappropriate? If he saw the situation the way I saw it he would behave the way I behave. There is also the possibility that, if I saw it as he saw it, I might see it as appropriate for him to show his anger or understand why he sees the need to call me names. What is there that I see that he doesn't see that makes me think his behavior is inappropriate? If he is to change his behavior, he must first have new, different, or additional information. He must perceive the situation or circumstances in a different way. Otherwise there would be no reason for him to change (outside of my intervention with threat or force.)
In order for me to show him a different way of looking at the name calling behavior, I have to be able to communicate with him--get him or her to listen to me. There is only one way I have ever been successful in getting a kid to listen to me; and that is to be willing to listen to him or her. What I must do as a teacher or as one responsible for helping him is to be in a relationship in which I have the ability to communicate with him, to understand what he is thinking or feeling that causes the behavior, and to share with him what I am thinking that causes me to see it in a much different way.
I can change my own behavior, sometimes completely or dramatically, with the same process -- seeing it differently. Imagine my walking down the street and seeing a drunk wallowing in the gutter. I might walk by and even be repulsed by the scene. All it would take to change my behavior dramatically is to have some information that would cause me to see it differently. Suppose I learned he is not drunk! He is having an epileptic seizure. Now, I have compassion rather than revulsion. And the only difference in my behavior, attitude and feelings is that I see or understand something that I didn't see previously. Society's acceptance of alcoholism as a disease or seeing learning disability in place of stupidity has changed conditions for alcoholics and LD kids remarkably. The reason I do not behave now as I did when I was a teenager (and believe me, I don't) is because I have learned a lot, I know more about life and I see things differently now.
Suppose, in my 12th grade American Problems Class, a student makes a crude, gross, racist remark. What good would it do for me to be outraged or angry? To demand a retraction or apology? To threaten or punish him? To lecture, admonish or berate him? (By the way, as an ordinary citizen, I might show outrage or threaten him-but as one responsible for helping him to become a better citizen, I cannot do that. There is also the consideration that even as an ordinary citizen, society might be better served if I helped to teach him rather than manipulated his behavior.)
Would it not be better to question his remark sincerely and gently with a genuine quest to understand, to encourage him, to provide or expose to him more of his underlying bias, his personal thoughts and ideas so that I and others might see where "he is coming from." Might we then plug some of our own ideas into his so that he begins to perceive it in a new way?
If the class could discuss rationally his position and our own positions in a non-threatening, non-judgmental, non-demanding way, it would allow us to have the kind of discussion that provides insights, discoveries, intelligent thinking, reflection, and self-critique.
If my relationship with this student and with this class caused them to see me as honest, fair, forthright and genuinely concerned; and, if they saw that I had a real respect, understanding, tolerance and patience for this student's position, it might at least be a beginning for changing his attitude, values, beliefs and his behavior.
In the case of this racist remark, I strongly suspect that as a teacher with the power and potential of grades, report cards, parental contact, administrative support, punishment, psychological intimidation and group humiliation, I could reduce the likelihood of his repeating it or anything like it again--at least in my presence. In other words, I think I could cause him to change his behavior, but I don't believe that would change what he really thinks and believes. I also fail to see that it would affect his behavior on the street or at the mall. I am reminded of Attorney General Robert Kennedy and his department when they began to enforce the civil rights laws in Alabama in the sixties. He said, "We can't change their attitude, but we can sure as heck change their behavior."
On the playground, a third grader becomes angered, picks up a softball bat and. deliberately hits another student in the stomach. A degree of fear engendered by punishment, admonishment, threats, intimidation, guilt, suspension, parental involvement and the like might prevent recurrence. But if our responsibility is to teach him the error of his ways then we must use a different approach.
Suspension would probably be appropriate because time and separation would likely reduce the emotional component on everyone's part. Suspension would allow a lot of thinking, reflection and analyzing to take place. We need to ask the question, "Do we want him not to hit people, or do we want to teach him not to hit people?" "Do we want him to learn better ways to control his anger, deal with a perceived wrong, or better control of his emotions and impulses?
The medium is the message
Our actions and our demeanor can show him the gravity of his actions. This requires calm, reasoned, non-retaliatory behavior on our part. A question might be, "What experiences could we offer that might cause the offender to see the offense in a different light; to see it from the victim's view; to see it for its deadly potential; or to see viable alternatives?" All of these ideas would seem to speak against retaliation, physical punishment, automatic rules, preset procedures, zero tolerance, or predetermined consequences. Instead, negotiated rules or consequences could be determined with the offender involved in the discussion. The considerations that go into determining what rules are decided on are probably more important than what the rules are. If it is decided that he cannot have a bat, or be on the playground with the others, etc., he will hear our considerations and see our consternation.
For instance, "I am afraid it might happen again. Some ways I might be able to insure that it doesn't happen are these:
"You sit on the bench instead of play.
You must stay in the building.
You cannot go near the victim."
The kid would likely protest, "But, I won't do it again." I might reply, "I believe that you think you won't do it again, but it is so important to me that I am not willing to take the chance that you will. I have to be sure that it will not happen." Now there would need to be a new round of expressed fears, feelings and positions. It becomes a negotiated decision and it is important that the negotiations be fair and democratic, and be considered with as much information and respect as possible.
This is a process not a gimmick. I don't know what will be said or what will be decided. I do know, however, the process by which it will be determined. We might wind up on a field trip to a children's hospital, or in a meeting with some high school baseball player who will share some stories about the danger of bats. If I know my goal is to get him to see for himself the kinds of things I see, I can find some ways--none of which would have to do with punishment. It would last until there is reason to believe that it is "safe" for the offender to have his status restored.
Making Discipline Self-Discipline
It is unfortunate that "relational discipline" as presented herein, is not more satisfying; that it can't be put on a bumper sticker, or that it can't be packaged and sold. Because this discipline procedure is a process that cannot be structured with explicit rules, it is not likely to satisfy "concrete thinkers" or those who would like to have clear guidelines, specific rules and pre-declared procedures. And, because it requires a relationship in which open, honest, reciprocal communication can take place, it cannot be imposed by the person in charge, the adult, or with the individuals who have the most to gain or lose. Those in charge would prefer to have better control than this process offers. In discipline the goal is not control…it is understanding.
On the other hand, it is fortunate that it can be presented in a singular paragraph that can give a clear, unmistakable goal directing the process in every situation:
Discipline is a communication procedure requiring an honest relationship. If my students had in their heads, the information and understanding I have in my head; they would behave as I behave. What are the most effective ways I can communicate the reasons or purposes for behaving in given ways?