04 October 2015

The Conflicted Disciplinarian

I stepped out into the office this week to find a kindergartner looking over the counter. He resembled a Kilroy cartoon---just his fingers holding onto the counter and the part of his head from the eyes up. "Are you ready to go back to class?" I asked him. He looked very confused. "I missed my recess again."

Yep, little one. You did. I asked him if he remembered why he didn't get to have recess and he knew it was because he had used his scissors to cut another student in his class. But I could tell that he didn't really understand what that had to do with recess. The connection between action and consequence wasn't clear to him.

The assistant principal and I had talked to the student before lunch. And while it would have been within bounds to suspend the student for the act of "violence," I couldn't advocate for that. First of all, he's five and has been in school less than a month. I don't know that he understands what school is yet...let alone why you might not be allowed to come to it. Second of all, he's five and doesn't have a lot of "tools" for dealing with conflicts he has with classmates.

The story goes that the teacher asked students to put their scissors away, and this little boy didn't. Another student repeated what the teacher said and the boy cut her on the finger. He could have said "Mind your own business." or "You're not the boss of me." or "I'm almost done." or a host of other things. But at that moment, he just reacted the only way he knew how. I'm not saying it was appropriate. I am saying that this is our opportunity to help him learn about other choices and how to use his words to communicate his feelings. Sending him home for a day doesn't do that. Frankly, I had a hard time taking away his lunch recess and afternoon recess, but that's what we ended up doing. The little boy had already apologized to his classmate.

Later that same day, we talked to two first graders that had been fighting on the playground. At some point during the scuffle, one punched the other and received a kick "in the nuts" (as one of the six-year olds stated) in return. Again, we could have suspended the little dudes...but I just couldn't justify it. This is mostly due to their age. I do believe that at age six, a child is old enough to understand that punching and kicking someone else is not okay. I don't believe that at age six that a child can manage all of their relationships effectively. I know plenty of adults who can't, either, but that's a different issue. Is it more important to assign the consequence and hope it makes an impression...or is it more important to use misbehavior as a teachable moment so that they student learns other ways to interact with classmates? Are both necessary?

Seattle schools recently instituted a one-year moratorium on suspensions for elementary students who commit non-violent offenses. While neither of the incidents I encountered this week would have been considered non-violent, I really have to wonder how many suspensions for any reason are necessary for elementary students. I know that there are some times when it is best for the student to have a break to regain some self-control, as well as times when a classroom may need a break from a chaotic student, too. But how many of those are there?

I also wonder about how and when we implement restorative justice as an approach at elementary. If you're five and already struggling to understand that there are more ways to get your point across other than acting out, is a sincere apology enough, knowing that older grade levels will add on to that base?

There's a lot to balance. In the case of the kindergartner, I'm sure the parent of the child who was hurt expects the school to assign a punishment. I'm sure that his guardian, who is homeless, just needs the boy to feel safe and cared for in a stable environment during the day. I'm sure that the little boy just needs to be a little boy.

When a kid gets sent to the office, I'm supposed to be the "bad cop," so the relationship with the teacher is preserved. I'm supposed to be the hardass when dealing with kids who can't even open their own milk cartons. I'm supposed to be judge, jury, and executioner...and that feels like a lot of responsibility, especially when I'm looking at a kid who can barely see over the counter. Maybe I'm just too big of a softie at heart, but I find it really difficult to bring down the hammer on any of these kiddos.

Meanwhile, over at the high school, it's a very different sort of story. Kids who are caught with pot in their backpacks. Kids who are leaving campus during the day to walk around the neighbourhood and smoke a cigarette. Kids who don't go home at night and have worried parents calling the next day to see if they've shown up at school. Kids who know how to push a teacher's buttons and take great pleasure in doing so.

Now what?

At high school, everyone involved in those conversations is world-weary, including the students. While no one admits that they are giving up on kids outright, there seems to be a pervasive attitude that the best thing to do is just find the easiest path to graduation for students. Change their schedule. Put them on the list for alternative school. Send them to ISS for one period a day to do their work there. Send them to counseling. Most of these solutions don't really get at the root cause of things, but are instead designed to put on a patch until the kid leaves school, one way or the other. With a graduation rate around 80%, that's a lot of kids who get the message that school is not the place for them.

I suspect that there are other ways to manage all of this: teaching social-emotional skills, establishing restorative justice practices, allocating resources to keeping older students engaged and on track. I don't know how we put it in place. It's great that we have systems for positive behavior supports, but I don't think this is enough for 20% of our students. What is your school or district doing that seems to be working? How do we as a system make connections between our own actions and consequences?

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