Rebuilding the Village

I’m a high school teacher. Many of my students misbehave regularly, and most of them misbehave at least occasionally. The question is as old as it is contentious: How do we properly impel our students to behave properly?

The traditional answer is corporal punishment: Spank students when they don’t do as expected, and they’ll stop misbehaving. Corporal punishment is still legal in nineteen states in this country. Numerous reports have shown that corporal punishment, be it from parents or teachers, has a negligible positive effect and a pronounced negative effect on children. It doesn’t work, but it’s easy.

Corporal punishment is a form of negative discipline: Proper behavior is induced through authority figures responding to misbehavior. Children behave because they don’t want to be punished.

While most states have banned spanking in schools, the standard discipline has shifted to suspensions, either in or out of school. One problem with this is that there’s a pronounced racial disparity in how suspensions are doled out. The more suspensions a student has, the less likely they are to graduate.

Naturally, correlation does not imply causation: The lower graduation rates may be tied to the fact that students are more likely to misbehave when they’re struggling in school, so it’s the lower academic success that’s driving the misbehavior that leads to higher suspension rates, not the other way around.

That’s a chicken-or-egg argument, though: I believe the reality is a cycle. Students who struggle in school act up. Rather than receiving the proper intervention, they get suspended. They fall farther behind. They act up more. They get suspended, and then ultimately expelled.

Also, suspension sends a message contrary to what we should be sending in education. Rather than addressing the core behavior problem, we’re simply excluding the misbehaving student. However, most students who get suspended are getting what they want: They don’t want to be in the classroom in the first place.

There is an awareness that suspension is not particularly effective as a long-term solution. State education departments (such as Michigan’s, where I teach) track suspension numbers and ask schools for accounting. Schools are being encouraged to adopt more positive disciplinary strategies.

Positive discipline involves rewarding children for expected behavior. The simplest form is positive reinforcement: When the student does something appropriate, announce it. Give them a candy or some other reward. “Good job, Sami. You raised your hand before speaking. I like to see that.”

Encouraged by their counties and states to find a long-term solution instead of the ineffective quick fix of suspension, schools have been adopting “positive behavior support” programs, sometimes with an added “I” for Intervention.

While positive reinforcement tends to occur at the classroom level, PBIS is designed to be schoolwide. The philosophy is that student misbehavior is partly rooted in a climate where children don’t know what’s expected of them.

One hallmark of PBIS systems, for instance, is to post signs in various places around the school building to remind students how to behave. These signs are contextual. If the expectation, for instance, is “Respect Property,” this might involve flushing the toilet in the bathroom, cleaning up your lunch table in the cafeteria, or not taking other people’s things in the classroom.

Proponents of positive discipline, including myself, contend that it is focused on teaching and guiding, while negative discipline is focused on getting compliance through fear and coercion. This is related to the distinction between “authoritative” and “authoritarian” rules.

At the same time, an underlying assumption of PBIS is that children misbehave because they lack the knowledge of what’s expected of them. This may be true for some students, particularly at younger ages, but most of my misbehaving students know full well that they’re not following the rules. They’re deliberately breaking the rules because the risk of consequence is less important than the gain of violation.

Signs aren’t the only part of PBIS, of course. Another aspect is some sort of reward system. In a fully robust system, students earn points for gifts in a school store or other extrinsic rewards, like a “free dress” day.

Schools have had mixed success with PBIS systems. Some report that classroom misbehavior has gone down considerably compared to the days of punishment-focused discipline. Others have seen less success, particularly at the high school level.

Ultimately, the criticisms of positive discipline in the schools mirror those of negative discipline: Teachers and administrators tend to focus on simple, quantifiable solutions. It’s unclear whether extrinsic rewards improve intrinsic motivation; some argue that rewards decrease motivation for anything other than getting rewards.

For a teacher at their wits’ end (and there are many this time of year, including myself), though, the focus is on getting through the day and getting some education done. Concerns about long-term efficacy often take a back seat.

The core issue is a much bigger bear than day-to-day rewards and punishments. Children are struggling to develop a sense of intrinsic motivation based on behaving because it’s the right thing to do. As Jody Stallings writes, most rational adults don’t rob banks because it’s wrong to rob banks, not because they’re afraid of jail time.

The child psychologist response to this is that virtues like “do the right thing” develop during teen and young adult years, and children need extrinsic guidance until that develops. That may be, but that doesn’t explain the increasing number of adults I’m interacting with that also lack basic civility skills.

A soliloquy in the Ed Wood film “The Violent Years” expresses the sentiment: “Adults create the world children live in, and in this process, parents play the key role. … Juvenile delinquency is always rooted in adult delinquency.” While the movie is overly dramatic and typical of Woods’s B-movie silliness, the sentiment is a valid one.

I think the error in the Woods soliloquy (and the era it comes from) is placing the blame entirely on parents. Children are raised by cultures and communities, not just parents. As we continue to develop a culture of mean, it should not be surprising that our youth likewise have increasing indifference and lack of empathy.

How do school officials deal with this complexity in the allotted time, and while they’re supposed to be educating children? This challenge is Herculean; putting up signs and suspending students is easy.

Sadly, I don’t have a solution. I know that spanking kids isn’t it, I know that a rubber-stamped suspension isn’t it, but I also know Jolly Ranchers and gold stars only go so far.

Complex problems call for complex solutions. Teaching students what’s expected of them is a step in the right direction, but it’s only a part of the solution.

Originally published on The Good Men Project.

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