5 Thoughts and 5 Questions: Behavior and Discipline

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I have student behavior on my mind. The search for solutions is keeping me up at night (or waking me early in the morning). I have this vision of what success should look like, but I am struggling to find the pathway to that vision. I have this notion that a school does not necessarily “arrive” at a positive student climate where students make good decisions, are actively engaged, and successful in the classroom. Instead, it is a constant process of trial, error, adjustment, and individualization. Sometimes that process is more challenging than other times. Right now, I (or we) are in that season.

Below are a few of the things I have learned about addressing student behavior over my years as a principal, as well as questions with which I am still grappling. It doesn’t necessarily mean my thoughts are correct (or that they apply to all school settings), I’m just sharing my experiences. For reference, I have spent my entire educational career at the junior high school level and a majority of that experience has been at very diverse Title I schools.

Engaging lessons and learning activities are the first “line of defense” against inappropriate student behavior. Students who are engaged in purposeful and relevant learning are far less likely to be disruptive. I often hear educators say things like, “It’s not my job to entertain kids.” This may be true, but engagement is another story. If your class is boring, or you solely teach from a PowerPoint presentation every day, you are asking for problems. Planning purposeful lessons with frequent opportunities for students to interact and take brain breaks will undoubtedly reduce the likelihood of misbehavior.

My question: when working with a diverse population (academic, socioeconomic, cultural, and social-emotional), how do you begin to differentiate in a manner that engages all learners?

Respect is earned. It is not a given. I can already hear the pushback on this one, but I believe it is true for many of our students. The days of being granted automatic respect because of your title (teacher, principal, etc.) are gone. You can lament this and pine for the days of old when kids complied with a teacher’s request because, “I said so,” or you can accept the fact that if you want respect from students you have to consistently demonstrate care and empathy for them as an individual. This week, I was visiting with one of my counselors about this and she pointed out that you can have honest conversations with students about respect. For example, you can say “Right now you are asking for something from me that you don’t appear to be willing to give in return.” So many of our students have been “burned” by adults in their life (in school and beyond) that we do have to earn their trust and respect. The way we do that is by developing positive, caring, relationships.

My question: respect is such a broad term that can mean dramatically different things to different people. How do you go about arriving at a common understanding of what respect is and what it looks like (with staff and students)?

Students (especially those who have experienced trauma or struggles in their home life) need consistency. Classrooms with clear and practiced expectations and procedures (the opportunity for students to know what is coming) provide a sense of security and belonging. This becomes evident when a teacher is absent and there is a substitute. Slight deviations from “the norm” often lead to disruptive behavior.

My question: should we be practicing more school-wide expectations and procedures? This takes away some teacher autonomy but provides students with common language.

There is almost always a root cause for behaviors — it is rarely just about a student choosing to be difficult. I suspect that for many of our students the “root cause” is an academic struggle. They are working below grade level, they are struggling to comprehend key concepts, and they either become bored and disengaged, or they misbehave to draw attention away from the fact that they don’t understand. For others, it might be something that happened at home, a life event that takes precedence over school, hunger, pain (physical or emotional), or a plethora of issues that plague the junior high mind.

My question: how do you go about addressing the root cause of student behavior when working with a diverse population? For us, the volume is often overwhelming and it is a challenge to find the time to give students the attention and support they need.

In most cases, traditional consequences don’t resolve the behavior issue because they don’t address the root cause. Detentions and suspensions (typical school punishments) may provide the teacher some relief (which is sometimes necessary) and may temporarily improve the learning environment for other students (which is sometimes necessary), but they rarely change student behavior over the long-term. Hitting a student with a bigger proverbial hammer is not going to help them understand the math they struggle with, deal with the issue in their home life, or address their struggles with anger. Kids need time to process their frustrations and struggles with a caring adult. They need logical consequences for misbehavior.

My question: I am almost certain that one piece of this solution is restorative practices, where students are engaged in ways to repair any harm they have done. This is something else that takes time and considerable effort. So, how do you start down this path using staff members and resources that are already stretched thin?

Student behavior is truly a complex and challenging issue. There are no simple solutions. Kids have changed. They aren’t worse, just different. If we are going to be successful in education we have to adapt our methods to meet their needs. It’s not about catering to the whims of students. It’s accepting our current realities and finding ways to help students develop the academic and behavioral skills they will need to be successful in life. Start with a caring relationship and go from there.

Onward and upward.

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