Companion piece to “Shall We Fight, or Shall We Solve A Problem?”
Remember this longtime definition of insanity? “If after you try something 2 or 3 times and it doesn’t work, you keep on doing it the same way.”
Having been a secondary teacher for 25 years and a teacher educator for 10 years, I experienced what I see to be the poster example of insanity; DETENTIONS!
I invite you to visit any detention hall almost anywhere, and then visit it again a couple of times later in the school year, or even more times if you’re so inclined. You’ll notice, with 1 or 2 exceptions, the same students each time. Now, if detentions “worked,” it stands to reason that the same kids wouldn’t again and again be there.
False beliefs abound among educators and even parents about this practice of giving detentions. I hear teachers saying things like, “It teaches students a lesson.” “There’s nothing else I can do to discipline students.” “They’d run all over me if I didn’t give out detentions.” “That’s the rule of our school and I have to go by it.” The list of false beliefs goes on and on.
Imagine what might happen if a teacher disciplined a student by meeting a few times with him or her to discuss the problem and together create a plan for how the student could change future behavior. It might go something like this:
SCENE: student is being disruptive and is not responding to request to change behavior (teacher may have started with a simple in-class request such as I’d really like everyone’s attention while I explain this problem.” and if this didn’t work, may direct the request to the particular student, “______, may I have your attention here for a few minutes” (Note that the teacher isn’t resorting to the “Dirty Dozen” and is using a simple I Message*).
In my experience, most students respond to these I Messages, but some don’t. Sometimes a student may just look up with a sneer, or put head down on the desk, refusing to interact at all, or says, “Get off my case.” or something even more disrespectful. In some cases, it may even be necessary to send the student out of class to a prearranged office.
Please note, the most important rule of the classroom is that everyone shows respect to others, and it is understood from day one that if someone continues to interfere with others’ learning, that person will go to the office (or some other prearranged place) until after class and then return to set up a meeting with the teacher according to the teacher’s schedule.
The meeting with the teacher might go like this:
Teacher: When you make loud noises in class and snap your pencil off your desk while I’m explaining the lesson, I find it hard to concentrate, and I’m concerned that I won’t be able to help you and everyone else learn what I’m teaching. I expect that you to stop these kinds of interruptions, and I’m wondering what I can do to help you out with this. (Extended I Message *and invitation to work together to solve the problem)
Student: This class sucks.
Teacher: I understand that parts of school can be incredibly boring. Do you have any ideas of what would make it more meaningful for you in our class? (Please note that the teacher isn’t addressing the student’s language or rudeness at this time, isn’t telling the student what s/he should be doing, isn’t warning, lecturing, or ordering, etc. In other words, the teacher is using none of the Dirty Dozen* and is keeping the solution with the student.)
Student: I hate this school.
Wait Time and if student says nothing after about ½ to 1 minute of silence
Teacher: Do you have any ideas for what would make class a little more interesting to you?
Student: Hey, I need to move. I can’t just sit for hours.
Teacher: So you ‘re thinking that being able to move around would make class go better for you (paraphrasing). And can you think of anything else?
Student: (no response and then) I’d like to bring my coffee and a donut to class. It’s really stupid that we can’t.
This discussion might be long or very short. In either case, the important thing is to paraphrase what the student says, put the student’s feelings into words, and to avoid any of the Dirty Dozen (lecturing, warning, ordering, etc.) All ideas should be written down. Let’s assume a list has been completed and now each idea can be discussed:
Teacher: Let’s see. You listed moving around as #1. When you have that need, would it help if you walked out into the hall and got a drink of water and returned to class?
Student: I guess.
Teacher: Ok, we’ll put that into our agreement and try it out to see if it helps. Can we agree on that? (important to have agreement)
Assuming the student agrees, you move on to the #2 idea. In this case it was coffee and donuts.
Teacher: On your second one, I’ll have to ask the principal because there is a school rule that no food is allowed in classrooms.
As the teacher and the student list all ideas, the teacher may ask for particular behavior like asking the student to agree not to use certain words in class. The student may ask for certain behavior from the teacher as well like asking the teacher not to call on him or her unless s/he raises a hand. In addition, the teacher can offer ways s/he can help if the student is showing signs of breaking the agreement – a hand signal both agree to or anything else that might help the student.
When all ideas have been exhausted, together, decide how to carry them out and discuss reasons why some can’t be carried out. Then, commit to the agreement:
Teacher: Can we now agree that we’ll try these things to see if they help, and if either of us thinks it isn’t working, we’ll tell each other, and we’ll meet to revise our plan? (Please note that the teacher is encouraging the student to be in partnership and to feel that the teacher genuinely plans to support the student.)
Student: I guess.
Teacher: I’ll make a copy for you and one for me. How about if we try this for 3 days, and then let’s meet again to talk about how it’s going?
Student says nothing
Teacher: I need a verbal agreement from you.
Student: I can’t say I’ll do it, but I guess I can try.
Teacher: I’m glad to hear it.
Yes, this takes a teacher’s valuable time, time the teacher could be spending helping a student who wants help and who is working hard and “deserves” help. It’s easy to feel resentful toward those students who take so much of our time away from the class learning, but I can assure you this practice of meeting individually is well worth it for two very important reasons.
First, the teacher actually saves class time because most students respond positively – even most of the difficult students. Secondly both the teacher and student benefit from getting to know each other individually because this process promotes building trust.
When teachers (and parents) stop judging, warning, lecturing, and ordering, a positive change takes place between the teacher and student. Let me tell you a story:
One of my sophomore boys came storming into my room just before the others had arrived, throwing his books across the room, and screaming, “I hate this f…ing school.”
According to our school rules, I was supposed to give him a detention, but I didn’t. Instead, I put his feelings into words and offered help, “Oh Donny, I can see how upset you are. Can I do anything to help?” He burst into tears and crumpled into a chair. He immediately started telling me his girlfriend had just broken up with him in the lunch room. I listened as he told me about it, and he slowly became calmer. After this “meeting” Donny became more cooperative in class, and I think the reason was he trusted me a bit more.
Does this approach work with the really tough kids. One of the classes I had each year was a special class of troubled kids. Several of these students, mostly boys, were on juvie probation and/or recovering from alcohol or drug addiction. I found that most of the time most of the students responded and became successful when I avoided the Dirty Dozen and instead used I Messages, put their feeling into words, and asked them to make a working behavior agreement with me. Was this approach 100% successful? No, but it was more successful than serving detentions.
Why would this be so? The answer is that with this process, we are teaching the skills that promote emotional maturity, and thus the ability to become responsible for their own behavior. I hear a lot of secondary teachers saying students should know how to act by the time they reach high school. Perhaps they “should,” but many don’t know, and it becomes our job to teach them.
The fact that the same people are in detention over and over tells us these people need teachers and parents to help them learn different ways of coping with boredom, anger, and other negative emotions.
Yes, these disruptive kids need to learn a lesson, but having them sit for an hour teaches nothing about how to become responsible for their behavior. Let’s teach them the lesson by showing them some skills to handle their emotions and then guiding them as they practice these skills in the classroom.
*Search online for Dr. Thomas Gordon, Teacher Effectiveness Training and Parent Effectiveness Training.
Copyright. Judy Harmon Holmes 2019