By Stephanie Filio
I work in a school that has a little over 1,500 sixth, seventh, and eighth graders. With so many youngsters in one building, there are bound to be some poor choices and mistakes made as these students grow. After all, one of the hallmarks of this age group is an impulse toward rebellion that is actually quite healthy! Adolescent rebellion is fueled by a need to secure an independent identity on the way to adulthood. One purpose of middle school is to provide protective bumpers for students as they make their way from the elementary school environment to the rigors of high school . . . and bump they do!
But how do adults respond to adolescent hiccups in a way that ensures a solid learning moment for the student? Often, students are starving for structure and clear expectations from the authorities with whom they share their world. This structure helps adolescents feel anchored and safe as they meander in and out of social acceptance and self-regard. While discipline, including suspension, does have some value in achieving this, it must be used intentionally and purposefully to be effective. Discipline is a way to help students sense their boundaries and know when to take a step back and think about their actions. Discipline should not cause shame. When used as a corrective measure instead, discipline can creatively offer opportunities to motivate students toward good.
Redefining Suspension as a Disciplinary Action
Is suspension helpful in correcting behavior? It depends on how crafty you can get with your definition of “suspension”! The word itself indicates a withholding of something or a reaction to a violation or rule. As with anything else, you can alter the connotation of the word from negative to positive by reframing it in terms that fit the culture of your school.
Here is one direction a suspension could go.
James begins loudly making fun of other students in class each time they answer a question aloud. The teacher uses the classroom phone to call James’s mom about the disruptive behavior while the class watches. The student begins walking around the room, so the teacher tells him he will be receiving an after-school detention instead of going to basketball practice. James finally sits angrily, doodling on the desk while mumbling audibly. The teacher says she “has had enough” and sends him to the grade-level administrator for in-school suspension (ISS) for the remainder of the bell.
Can you see how James’s reaction intensifies with each teacher action? The cause and reaction begin to grow unclear as the student acts in response to the teacher and the teacher attempts to do the same. What if it went more like this?
James begins loudly making fun of other students in class each time they answer a question aloud. The teacher excitedly says, “James! You scored super high on the warm-up activity about this, what do you think the answer is?” James answers, and the teacher tells him she knew he would do great, going on to say she can’t wait to tell his mom how well he is tackling this unit. James then gets up and starts walking around the classroom. His teacher says a brain break would be great and asks James to return to his seat so that the whole class can take a stretch at their desks. James stretches with the class and sits down, and then begins doodling on the desk. The teacher walks by him as she paces the class while she reads aloud, and she taps James on the shoulder and points to the page they are on. James diverts his attention to the reading material.
See how James’s teacher is moving right alongside him while he has a bit of a squirrelly day? She brings him into the environment more instead of pushing him out. Was he disciplined? Sure, considering there was an unwanted behavior that was corrected. Was he suspended? Absolutely, if you consider that the unwanted behavior was “suspended” and then seized for redirection toward a positive experience.
When making disciplinary decisions, educators can consider a few things to ensure that their tactics are more likely to have a positive change on student behavior.
- Punishment vs. discipline. There is a difference between discipline and punishment. A “punishment” is a negative consequence that is a result of an unwanted behavior. An effective disciplinary action, however, doesn’t just take away the unwanted behavior; it replaces it with a desirable behavior that will be mutually beneficial for the student and the educator. For example, prohibiting bathroom breaks for a wandering student is a punishment. Minimizing breaks to during only the last ten minutes of class while giving the student a classroom job to encourage engagement is corrective discipline.
- No shame game. Corrective behavior isn’t about pushing students to behave a certain way by making them feel terrible about their decisions. We all make mistakes, and we all get caught up in moments of emotion. We want students to feel good about their decisions and grow from slipups. Instead of calling out students in front of peers, give students privacy by having a one-on-one discussion with them.
- Use chemical reaction! Rewards are incredibly powerful tools rooted in chemicals and biological receptors. While suspensions and other punishments suppress constructive emotions (such as happiness and inspiration), positive reinforcements cause a dopamine surge. Higher dopamine levels help you feel good about yourself and the world around you, and us lucky humans can get addicted to that! Good calls home, verbal praise, and high fives for positive behaviors will go a long way with a developing brain that is learning how to process its environment.
- Believe to achieve. Self-efficacy is the cornerstone of motivation. When we believe in ourselves, we can actually imagine living successfully. This is high self-efficacy, motivating us to keep going (otherwise we might find it difficult to see the point in persevering). Many disciplinary tactics alone, such as suspension, can reduce this self- efficacy by isolating students and making them feel bad about themselves. Instead of giving students an in-school suspension, try having them work on a self-assessment, where they can visualize what they do well and what they need to work on. Helping students track progress will give them small successes along the way so that their self-efficacy can grow.
Reframing the System
By reframing traditional words that we use in discipline, we recognize that it is necessary for teachers to correct difficult student behavior. However, we also respect students’ developmental levels and seek to find solutions that have a long-term positive influence on students’ behavior. Teachers with a toolbox of positive corrective instruments can better discipline students in a way that will offer comprehensive peace in the classroom as well as longer-term lessons for the students. With increased self-efficacy, students are more likely to self-regulate and have elevated feelings of motivation and perseverance.
Stephanie Filio is a middle school counselor in Virginia Beach. She received her undergraduate degree in interdisciplinary studies from the University of Virginia and her M.Ed. in counseling from Old Dominion University. In a discussion with one of her UVA professors about her desire to stay in school forever, her mentor wisely responded, “If you want to be a lifelong learner, go into education,” and so she found her place. Prior to her six years as a school counselor, Stephanie worked in private education, specializing in standardized tests, test preparation, and future planning. She writes about her career and hobbies at her blog, Weekend Therapy, and can be found on Twitter @steffschoolcoun. Stephanie also enjoys spending time with her books, crafts, and family.
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