Discipline: Finding a different way

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I’ve been teaching after-school theater classes on and off for about seven years. It’s a fun, creative outlet for me and I enjoy imparting what I know to the elementary school kids that I teach. I’ve taught in suburban and city schools, with classes that have as few as five kids and classes with more than 20. Sometimes the kids are brilliant little thespians and sometimes it’s like pulling teeth to get them to lose their shyness, and sometimes I struggle with discipline.

It’s gotten better, I have to say. I feel sorry for the teacher I used to be, the one who had absolutely no idea how to manage a class full of students, even with a classroom teacher to help me. I remember some frustrating moments, when I just couldn’t, for the life of me, get the behavior of the kids under control, and couldn’t seem to get anything accomplished because the kids were acting up so much.

Sometimes there’s that one kid who seems to be the biggest problem, and no matter what I do, that kid is determined to mouth off, not participate, and intent on basically disrupting the class. I’ve adjusted my method for dealing with this type of kid over the years. You can’t ignore them, but you don’t want to reward their behavior either by paying more attention to them.

In some ways, I’ve been influenced by another freelance job I have — doing crisis intervention training. Basically, I’m an actor who performs with a group that works with nurses, hospital workers and law enforcement people who interact with people with mental illness. The training is aimed at teaching people to be able to de-escalate someone who is having a mental health crisis, rather than relying on restraints and other methods that ultimately don’t help the person having the problem. The techniques that the participants in the training learn include gaining rapport and active listening. They learn to ask open questions and to keep track of their own safety while building a relationship with a person in crisis in order to help them.

I find it a useful skill in my daily life but especially in my teaching. Making a personal connection with someone goes a long way toward having a positive experience with that person, and when a crisis does arrive, it helps to have a level of trust and respect. 

But it comes down to time, of course, and resources. When I do de-escalation training at hospitals, one of the biggest objections we get is from nurses who say they simply do not have time to spend talking a person down from a crisis. They’d rather just call security. The problem is that it actually costs more time in the long run, and more resources especially if restraints end up being used.

I think the same can be said in the classroom. Yes, kids who need more attention do take up a teacher’s time, time that could be spent with the rest of class. But what is the cost of being too quick to send the kid out of class?

Some disturbing numbers have come out recently about discipline in Minnesota schools, particularly when you look at the racial disparities. Clearly, something is not right with how schools are handling discipline, when you have statistics like one in ten African American boys in kindergarten getting suspended. Some African American leaders are calling for a moratorium on suspensions, as well as a call for getting rid of police officers in schools. 

For schools, what would it look like to, instead of suspending and expelling kids, try a different way? What if we devote more resources and time to giving kids who need it some extra support? 

One of the things we’re going to be doing at TC Daily Planet in the next few months is looking at some of the alternative solutions tried by different schools to move away from suspensions and expulsions. TC Daily Planet writer Christina Cerruti and I will be looking at what works and what doesn’t. Please contact out to us if you have a personal story in regard to this issue.