Every Discipline Issue Is a Learning Opportunity

By Jonathan C. Erwin, M.A., author of The School Climate Solution

“Every discipline issue should be an educational experience for the student.”

Every Discipline Issue Is a Learning OpportunityHearing these words many years ago during a school district conference changed the way I perceived behavior management. This new way of thinking helped me transform my middle school classroom from a place where I used rewards and consequences in an attempt to control students’ behavior, into a place where students learned to take responsibility for their own behavior (and learning), fix mistakes instead of fixing blame, align their behavior to classroom community values, and think about the needs of the community instead of just their personal needs.

I’m not suggesting that behavior issues disappeared completely—remember, this was a middle school classroom—but by using the process of restorative discipline, we had occasional incidents, not chronic problems. Students learned to admit their mistakes, and they learned new behaviors to replace their irresponsible ones. This process helped maintain a sense of order and safety, enabled me to build and maintain positive relationships with my students, and gave me more time to do what I was hired to do: teach!

Setting the Stage for Restorative Discipline
The term restorative discipline implies that there is something for students to be restored to. Therefore, creating a sense of community is critical to its success. As social beings, all humans have an intrinsic need to feel like a part of a community. When students engage in behavior that weakens or severs their social connections, they feel a strong urge to be restored to the social group. Here are seven guidelines for developing a sense of community in your classroom.

  1. Let students know who you are. Share things such as your family status, your hobbies or interests, your values, why you chose to teach, and so on with students.
  2. Get to know your students. Some excellent ways for getting to know your students are greeting them at the door every day, holding community meetings, attending extracurricular events, employing team-building activities and games, and having lunch with every student.
  3. Help students get to know each other. Use cooperative learning structures, hold community meetings, and play learning games.
  4. Provide clear rules. And explain the consequences for violating those rules.
  5. Create a classroom constitution. This activity is key to restorative discipline. The process provides students with a voice in developing a social contract that defines not only the acceptable and unacceptable behavioral norms in their classroom but also the four to six principles that the class deems most important to guide their behavior throughout the year—values such as respect, kindness, honesty, responsibility, friendship, fairness, caring or empathy, and so on. It’s important to get a commitment (signature) from every student once the class agrees on the constitution. These signatures will be highly useful when conferencing with a student in a disciplinary situation.
  6. Teach social-emotional skills. In order for students to take personal or social responsibility, they need to understand these simple concepts: All of their behavior is a choice; only they can control their own behavior; and for every choice, there is either a positive result or a negative consequence.
  7. Teach students how to respond should they violate the social contract.
  • Admit the mistake. Don’t deny it or lie about it. The message students should hear is that everyone makes mistakes. We can’t learn from mistakes unless we admit them.
  • Apologize. This is an option. Forced apologies mean nothing and only create resentment. Sincere apologies only.
  • Change your behavior. Students realign their behavior with the class constitution, restoring them to the class community and the principles they value.It’s important to explain the above three steps and demonstrate them when you make a mistake. When teachers show that they, too, make mistakes, admit to and apologize for the mistakes, and change their behavior, they gain students’ respect, and students get a vivid picture of the three simple steps in action.When I was in the classroom, I would intentionally violate the social contract. During a community meeting, I would have a side conversation. Students would inevitably call me out on my behavior, at which point I would say, “You’re right. I was talking. I’m sorry. It won’t happen again.” Then, I would unveil a poster on the wall that listed the three steps above and tell my students, “That’s what I’m asking of you if you make a mistake and violate our constitution.”

The Restorative Discipline Process
Many discipline issues will be prevented through implementing the previous seven strategies. For chronic behavior issues or serious incidents, the following process is one that helps students restore themselves to the community and to their constitution’s values. It’s important that:

  • The process is done in private.
  • Neither party involved in an incident is in a highly emotional state.
  • Restoration is chosen by the student, not forced.
  1. Sit with the student. Explain that you are not there to punish the student but to work out a win-win solution. Also explain that you’re not there to argue—this is an opportunity for the student to make things right. If the student chooses not to take the opportunity, reasonable consequences will be imposed the traditional way, but emphasize that you’d prefer the student choose to restore herself to the class community and the class constitution.
  2. Identify the unacceptable behavior. First, ask the student why she thinks you are having the meeting. If the student is not forthcoming or sincerely doesn’t know, simply explain the specific behavior that was unacceptable. If the student denies the behavior or argues, remind her that you saw or heard the incident. (Make sure you did.) If she continues to deny it, simply ask, “Would you prefer to receive the consequences (loss of recess, lunch detention, in-school suspension, and so on) or make things right?” If she chooses the consequences, deliver them calmly, explain that there will be a follow-up conference, and dismiss the student. If the student chooses to make things right, go on to the next step.
  3. Refer to the class constitution. Ask the student to list the four to six principles or values that she committed to when she signed the constitution. (With younger students, you may tell them the principles.) Ask the student to identify the value her behavior violated. Ask if the behavior hurt anyone physically, emotionally, or academically.
  4. Ask for a restorative plan. Ask the student what she can do to repair the situation and/or the relationship and support the violated value. While younger students might need to be coached on ideas for making it right, older students should be held accountable for coming up with a plan. The plan should be as closely related to the infraction as possible. (Note: Apologies alone are not enough.) The student needs to replace her irresponsible behavior with a new, responsible one. Ask this critical question: “What is it that you were trying to get by (the irresponsible behavior)?” Once the student tells you what she wanted (or, if she doesn’t know what she wanted, what she was trying to avoid), tell her, “That behavior is unacceptable. What else could you do to achieve the same goal?” Make sure the plan is simple, specific, and addresses any relevant relationships or principles.

Students who choose not to make things right but to accept consequences instead must make a reentry plan before they can return to the classroom after they receive their consequences. The plan should explain a behavior they are going to use as a replacement for the behavior that resulted in the consequences. In this way, these students have learned two things: (1) There are social consequences for their behavior, and (2) there is an acceptable replacement behavior for an irresponsible one.

Students who followed their restorative plan have learned that they can fix their own mistakes, learn new behaviors, and align their behavior with important principles.

Author Jonathan C. Erwin, M.A.Jonathan C. Erwin, M.A., has been a secondary English teacher, a professional development specialist, a college professor, and the director of training and curriculum for a federally funded character education program. His previous books include The Classroom of Choice (ASCD, 2004) and Inspiring the Best in Students (ASCD, 2010). Jon is currently an independent educational consultant, a senior faculty member at the William Glasser Institute, and a trained HealthRhythms facilitator. Jon’s work focuses on providing research-based approaches to teaching, managing, counseling, and training that appeal to people’s intrinsic motivations and help children, adolescents, and adults develop physically, intellectually, emotionally, and socially. A musician and martial arts enthusiast, Jon has earned a second degree black belt in karate and a first degree black belt in Tae Kwon Do. He lives in western New York.

The School Climate SolutionJonathan Erwin is the author of The School Climate Solution: Creating a Culture of Excellence from the Classroom to the Staff Room.

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