Misguided Discipline Proposals to Reduce School Suspensions

New federal guidelines regarding school suspensions for discipline are misguided because some of the recommendations are counterproductive. Specifically, rewarding students for good behavior and creating student codes of contact that spell out sanctions for violations are old and ineffective approaches for this new generation of 21st century young people.

Rewarding students for good behavior is built on good intentions but is counterproductive. Manipulative approaches of bribing by giving rewards for desired behaviors are effective only for the moment. The reward motivates the person to get the reward but does not build the characteristic for wanting to become more responsible. Besides, rewards punish those people who do everything that the rewarded person does but without also receiving the reward. This is commonly known as “punished by rewards.”

An important point to remember when relying on  “external” approaches is that they depend on someone else. They are useless when an adult is not around. More importantly, the highest reward is not what students receive from others, but rather what they become when they act responsibly because it is the right thing to do.

The recommendation of creating student codes of contact that spell out sanctions for violations is also counterproductive because these move the teacher away from being a facilitator of learning and into the role of becoming a cop. Teachers do not enter the profession to become police, but that is what the regulations recommend. Here is how it works. If a code of conduct is broken, the natural tendency is to enforce it—as police do. In contrast, if the goal of the teacher is to have the student WANT to become responsible, then informing the student ahead of time is counterproductive. The reason is that the risk has been reduced. Not knowing what will happen is far more effective than knowing ahead of time.

Imposing punishments is not nearly as effective as eliciting a consequence to help the student help her/himself. This is accomplished by working collaboratively with young people and by eliciting a procedure or consequence that will help the student become more responsible.

On November 18, 2013, I presented to the Hillsborough County (Tampa, Florida) middle school and high school administrators who had been admonished by a district administrator that the suspension number of “minority” students must be reduced.

As a former elementary, middle, and high school assistant principal and principal, I understand how natural it is to have a mindset of enforcement. However, once an administrator moves away from imposing punishments and toward eliciting a consequence, the more responsible students become. My presentation took place at Blake High School that had already adopted the following”expectations” instead of “rules.”

BLAKE High School Expectations
–Be Respectful and Responsible
–Listen to Each Other
–Arrive on Time
–Keep Positive and Never Quit
–Engage in Class and be Cooperative

Expectations put the responsibility on the student, where it belongs, rather than on the teacher who turns into a cop or an enforcer of rules.

Here is an example from my own teaching. Our school had received new desks and the bottom were composed of a series of rods that served as a bookshelf. The problem was that if a student flicked one of the rods, it would set up a harmonic ringing. Flicking a rod became rampant around the school and, of course, it occurred in my class also. I used one of my many unobtrusive approaches; I just paused and said, “Someone wants to make her/his own rules in our class.”  After no more than 10 seconds, Rita stood and apologized. I did not ask her to stand nor did I ask her to apologize, but both of her actions were a natural outgrowth of accepting responsibility.

How do you get a teenager to admit this in front of her peers? I had created an atmosphere where students knew they were not going to be punished. My students knew that the only thing I wanted was for them to accept responsibility for an irresponsible action. The key was that all of my students felt safe.

In order to create an atmosphere most conducive to learning, students need to feel safe—that they will not be harmed emotionally, psychologically, or physically. Counterwill is the natural human tendency to resist force or coercion of any kind. People who use coercion are acting counter to the simple fact of life that people “do good when they feel good.” Prompt a young person to feel bad and in return you may receive reluctance, resistance, resentment, and sometimes even rebellion and retaliation.

School suspensions will be reduced when teachers understand that they are in the marketing and relationship profession. As Ben Franklin said to King George III after the passage of the Stamp Act, “You cannot force people into changing their mind.”