OPINION - Perspective on school discipline

To the Editor:

When the Charles County School Board announced a few months ago that they would be reviewing the discipline matrix used in the county, it came as a relief to many teachers. There was hope that we might move beyond a philosophy (Positive Behavioral Intervention and Supports) which obsessively rewards students for acceptable behavior with the intention of extinguishing undesirable behaviors. To be modestly effective, the teacher must continuously reward positive behavior while trying to squeeze in moments of instruction when student attention has been captured by the opportunity to earn a reward. These moments are fleeting. With this situation being repeated dozens of times each day, students become conditioned to wait for the next opportunity to earn the reward. This leaves plenty of time for students to be distracted/entertained by the undesirable behaviors exhibited by classmates who crave the attention of their peers more than the reward. Though inefficient, it is the tool that teachers use to manage student behavior.

Recently, the plan to address the issue was presented in the form of several new initiatives and some tweaking of the response matrix for some offenses. With the Charles County School Board's recommendations comes an implied acknowledgement by school leadership that a problem does exist. Sadly, none of the new initiatives address the heart of the problem. The proposed solutions are cut from the same philosophical fabric as PBIS. Rather than acknowledging the philosophical failings of PBIS, the solution is a prescription for more of the same. While there is potential for improvement with some of the new initiatives, substantive change is still distant.
The standard for acceptable behavior is currently quite low. Nearly all students qualify easily for the end of quarter celebrations (parties, dances, special assemblies, field trips, etc...) that occur throughout the year. Students do not adopt new behavioral habits as a result of PBIS. They merely learn the appropriate moments to exhibit the requested behavior. Student preoccupation with earning the prize is interpreted by many educators as receptiveness to learning. After more than 12 years of immersion in PBIS principles, one might expect to see indications of improved behavior and academic performance. Such evidence is difficult to find.

It should come as no surprise that most students (and consequently parents) are enamored with PBIS. It is an easy system to manipulate. The student invests little, yet is amply rewarded. The new initiatives propose to give troubling students therapeutic counseling to equip them with strategies for dealing with frustrating situations in the classroom. This might be especially beneficial to the students whose frustration has contributed to the nearly 70% increase in attacks on teachers over the past three years. Other students might benefit from the proposal of Parent Shadowing. Rather than suspend a student, a parent is invited to shadow their child throughout the school day. The class and teacher receive no respite from the offending student. Instead, the parent accompanies their child in the hope of embarrassing them into more acceptable behavior. This seems an odd concept. No parent of a child facing possible suspension is likely to be surprised by their behaviors. Quite the contrary, it is often parents' inability to effectively deal with problem behaviors at home that led to the problem at school. It is a sign of our complete desperation for solutions that we would even consider a program that exposes the teacher and other students to a myriad of possible dangerous outcomes.

It was suggested by one board member that a fundamental cause of problem behaviors may be "a lack of understanding of individuals and/or the lack of establishing relationships with students". It was also stated by another board member that relationships form the foundation of all learning. Regarding these points there can be little disagreement.  In the paradigm of PBIS however, this relationship is redefined. The teacher is perceived not as one who is presenting important information for which the student is responsible to learn, but rather as one who is responsible for each student's happiness in order for them to learn. Note here the shift in responsibility from student to teacher. A primary focus of the PBIS philosophy requires an unwavering dedication to student happiness. Students are never happier than when they are playing with their friends. Why not recreate this atmosphere in the classroom? The teacher then has the obligation to become every student's friend. Rewards consequently serve as a vital tool in manipulating not just student behavior but also their happiness. (Who isn't happy when they receive a reward?) It is with these beliefs that PBIS has established its foothold in our schools.

As a prerequisite for learning, a proper relationship between student and teacher is necessary. Every successful teacher recognizes the important balance of the learning equation. It relies upon equal, although uniquely different, contributions from each of the parties involved; student - parent - teacher. PBIS attempts to redefine the teacher's most important task. The teacher in the PBIS oriented classroom must first be a manager and monitor of student emotions and feelings. This sounds nurturing, kind and considerate. In reality, it is an unrealistic expectation. With the focus on happiness, there isn't much time for learning. Keeping just one student happy in class is a difficult challenge. Imagine the energy, time and focus that are spent maintaining happy relationships with each of 25 or more students. This is an impossible task; particularly if teaching and learning are also expected. We should give back to student’s age appropriate responsibility for their feelings and emotions. Kind words, compliments and good manners should be a part of every classroom. When treated as a prerequisite, however, feelings and emotions can quickly eclipse the learning environment.

We also need to stop seeing discipline as something we do to students and see instead that it is something done for them. When done appropriately, a consequence for a disruptive behavior can teach the student an important lesson about the way real life works. In a school climate that is uncomfortable with consequences these lessons are not learned; leaving the student unprepared for life outside the artificially protective bubble of PBIS. Adopting a behavioral plan that is connected to reality would permit a proper perspective on learning as the top priority to be re-established. This fundamental shift in the classroom environment could positively transform the quality of education in our county. It would simultaneously allow teachers to fulfill their mission as educators while providing students an opportunity to be less self-focused and more focused on learning. This refocusing may also help students rediscover a joy in learning that will serve them well throughout their lives.

Steve Moyer, Waldorf, MD


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