I have had the wonderful pleasure to be able to work with students in classrooms, after school programs, and on playgrounds for a number of years. I have had more great days than not-so great days. As a parent and as an educator, I have had my share of situations that required discipline for behavior issues. I may not be an expert, but I have found a number of things that do work and that do not. The most important thing that does NOT work is public humiliation of students or children in any setting or with any forms of physical punishment. This, many would say is common sense; yet this week, I have heard stories from parents in which physical 'discomfort' is a 'discipline policy' in some local schools. New to Florida and the US, perhaps things are done differently here and my experiences in Canada have 'softened' my approach; but to me any form of physical or mental humiliation is not acceptable.
This past week, I have heard of a local school here in Florida that has a 'desk on the back' form of discipline. The concept behind it is based on the idea that children must carry everything they own and use at school (from textbooks to pencils) back and forth in their backpacks for a minimum period of one week. The idea of the 'discomfort' is to instill in the child that 'bad' behavior is not acceptable and that the discomfort of lugging everything will create the memory and habit to behave more appropriately the next time. If the lesson is not learned within one week, then the discipline is extended for two weeks and so on.
When I first heard this, I literally cringed. I pictured my own child walking home bent over from the weight of his backpack the beginning of the year when he took his textbooks home. He only has a short distance from the bus stop, but if he had to do that for even a week straight - my fear of physical damage to his posture and back would cause me to drive him daily and approach the school about other options. My advice to any teacher who uses this form of discipline is to be very careful - you are walking on very thin ice here on the boarder of corporal punishment. Instilling pain on children - or anyone - is not acceptable behavior. As other parents realize this practice is taking place, I assure you the repercussions for your particular location will not be pleasant. I have seen many upset students, but they do not compare to upset parents. Issues like these can not only have parents show up in your front office, but also lawyers.
Here are a few facts to keep in mind with regard to using this type of discipline:
- 10,000 injuries were caused by heavy backpacks in 2005
- 15% or less of the students body weight is the MOST a backpack should weigh
- Students aged 7 to 10 are the host high risk group for injuries from stress on the spine
"Heavy backpacks can distort the natural curves in the middle and lower back causing muscle strain and irritation to the spine, joints and ribcage...Physical Therapist, Missy Caywood said that if children are not careful, these injuries would follow into adulthood and could remain permanent" (KUJH-TV News, University of Kansas, 11/08/06)
As an educator, I realize that discipline is an area that is difficult for teachers. Everyday, the rules change. However, if you simply take the time out to be more aware, you will often find that your classroom runs smoother. If you enter a behavior situation with calmness, understanding and humor, you can usually get your point across and not adversely affect the situation. Use your common sense. I remember substituting in a school a few years ago, and watching situations develop with a particular student day after day. The teacher had enough, and was getting to the end of her rope. I asked if I could have a few moments with the student, and she agreed. I sat next to his desk and asked him why he was so upset. After the 'Everybody picks on me and hates me', I took the time to ask who 'everybody' was. 'Everybody' was one other student in another classroom. I humorously asked him if he could project his anger through concrete walls and when he looked at me like I was nuts, I told him that was his problem. Every time he was trying to get back at the other kid, his anger was hitting the teacher and him and causing an argument. I suggested he either learn telekinesis or mention the situation with the other student to his teacher. Following that discussion, he was much more calm, he did not retaliate the other student involved, and he learned to speak up not scream out. The teacher, was amazed at how easy it was to change the behavior - no detention, no yelling, no humiliation - just communication and humor.
Speaking of detention - there is an effective way to use detention and many not-so-effective ways to use detention. I have heard of students being required as part of their detention to clean garbage from the school yard. This, in itself, may seem like it is a win-win situation, but I have been on the school yard and watched what can happen with this form of discipline. Often, the students are chastised and humiliated by their peers. They are made fun of, called names, and be-littled. To me, is no different than public humiliations from hundreds of years ago when people were made public spectacles by throwing rotten fruit and vegetables at them. This leaves mental scars on our children and that is not acceptable either. Further, it can create a behavior boomerang. Students can feel belittled, so they act out even more with anger at being humiliated in the first place. If it continues, the 'bad' behavior is re-inforced and becomes a permanent habit. Not good. Use detention to get extra work done - on areas that the student requires help in. That means relationship building skills and foundations too - not just math. As a teacher, it is your responsibility to distinguish the needs of your students and supply the resources. That was, I hope, the passion and reason you became a teacher to begin with. There are more resources available to teachers now than ever before - use them.
These ideas do not always work, I realize, and I am not making light of situations. Violence in classrooms does occur, and teachers need to be prepared for that. However, often if the educator is very aware and time is taken when the 'small stuff' starts, discipline can often be very easy. If an educator takes the time to learn about awareness in themselves, they can often create amazing learning settings with positive outcomes. There also needs to be continuous communication - and not just be email and 'open house' nights. Parents and teachers need to talk face-to-face. Whenever I have been asked by parents about how I 'get along so well' with kids, I simply remind them that their children and just little people. They still have the same feelings as we adults do, and those feelings are often amplified because they are in new situations all of the time and still learning social skills. If you want happy students and respectful kids - all you have to do is be that which you want them to be and communicate that to them in every single thing that you do.