One of the areas that occupies a lot of time in staff discussion is student conduct. Often times these conversations get diverted to a discussion about consequences. About what we, the adults, need to do to them, the students, to gain compliance. I want to be clear that I am in favor of us having expectations for appropriate conduct for all members of our school community. I’m also in favor of the adults modeling those expectations. And I’m really in favor of us dealing with the behavioral miscues that occur with our students in the same way we deal with academic miscues – by providing strong remedial efforts to help students more closely approximate the desired behaviors. However, as Paul Dix argues in a blog post on the UK Guardian,
“Most behavior systems are based on the “Punishment Road”. The idea that for every behaviour there is a punishment to fit the crime; a punishment that is severe enough to give the child a road to Damascus and change their ways. For children who won’t “do as they are told” the solution is to punish them, in increments of severity, until they will.”
The frightening aspect of this approach is that it works for those students who are afraid of the consequences. However, for our neediest learners or those who come from challenging home environments, the effects can be severe. For these children we simply become the latest adult in a long line of adults who have let them down. Rarely are these students worried about the punishment or the consequences that result from them. As Dix comments, “What they are coping with in their own lives far outweighs any threats that school can issue.” These students need support not consequences. They need adults who display an understanding of who they are and demonstrate a desire to help them to meet the challenges.
I am convinced, based on numerous conversations with teachers, most recognize this but they feel stuck with a school-wide system or philosophy that weighs heavily on punishment being the answer. Students are given consequences with little regard to what they might need in order to change the negative behaviors they are demonstrating. If the student persists, we up the ante until they are asked to leave. It begins with the conversation staffs first engage in when the topic of student deportment arises. If the dialogue is all about control and “laying down the law”, it will not be a surprise that more energy is spent on designing new consequences than in structuring growth opportunities to address the changes we can assist our students in making. This will also predetermine the end result for every conversation on behavior. It’s like the old analogy that says if the only tool I have in my toolbox is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. The health and welfare of our students demands that we have a more complete toolbox.