What If Everything You Knew About Disciplining Kids Was Wrong?
July 8, 2015 4:57 PM   Subscribe

Teachers and administrators still rely overwhelmingly on outdated systems of reward and punishment, using everything from red-yellow-green cards, behavior charts, and prizes to suspensions and expulsions. [... ] But consequences have consequences. Contemporary psychological studies suggest that, far from resolving children's behavior problems, these standard disciplinary methods often exacerbate them. They sacrifice long-term goals (student behavior improving for good) for short-term gain—momentary peace in the classroom. What If Everything You Knew About Disciplining Kids Was Wrong?
posted by desjardins (53 comments total) 64 users marked this as a favorite
 
Will's breakthrough session happened in first grade, after several failed attempts, when D'Aran, then a guidance counselor, and his teacher sat down with him. He'd been refusing to participate in writing lessons with his classmates. Over 45 minutes, they coaxed Will through the initial moans and "I don't knows" and finally landed on a solution: Will said if he could use lined paper that also had a space to draw a picture, it would be easier to get started writing. Before long, he was tackling writing assignments without a problem.

If we had more aides, if we had more time - which is basically the same as saying if we had more money - then we could treat kids like human beings and not like rabid animals in a kill shelter.

I'm pretty sure everything I know about discipline is right and that the issue is that the US doesn't spend enough money on education. Kids who don't fit the mold are more expensive to educate. Spend more money or watch these kids fail. Those are the choices.
posted by GuyZero at 5:04 PM on July 8, 2015 [73 favorites]


Well, let me recant a little bit - there are probably people who are still strict authoritarians when it comes to student discipline. None of the teachers I know are that way, they're simply overworked. But I suppose there are some people who don't even know that empathy is a thing you can do with misbehaving children.
posted by GuyZero at 5:09 PM on July 8, 2015 [7 favorites]


From experience, treating my students like actual people made all the difference. As GuyZero notes, that costs money - in the form of smaller class sizes and more staff.

I taught German, so my classes were very small, and it was easier to practice "Treat them like people" for me than it was for most colleagues.
posted by MissySedai at 5:10 PM on July 8, 2015 [4 favorites]


But we are treating you like real people! Like the grown-up widgets you deserve to become one day!

/endrant
posted by polymodus at 5:12 PM on July 8, 2015 [9 favorites]


My sixth grade classes are about 20 and I teach in a private school, so I have it good, but even then compared to the teacher down the hall who routinely says things like, "That kid is really bad" and "he's a liar," I have close to zero discipline problems on average for a year, and she has several a week and hands out detentions like candy. I don't spend a whole lot of time counseling kids or doing what that aide did in the article, because generally I don't have the time and neither do they (we all have work to do and school is a workplace), but I never assume kids do something because they're just bad and I never allow kids to give other children a hard time about anything. I call it "piling on" and they learn fast that I don't allow it. Funny how infrequent severe misbehavior is when you don't let other kids pick on the guys who get in trouble a lot. And I ask kids to take a little walk down the hall and back if they're about to blow up. It doesn't take that much.
posted by Peach at 5:19 PM on July 8, 2015 [65 favorites]


I love this emphasis; I really hope it spreads. Overall, even in Skinner situations punishment doesn't really "work" and has a ton of side effects. Positive reinforcement is much more effective. Negative reinforcement is literally torture.

I firmly believe that most people are doing the best they can with what they know. We could all use more understanding and compassion.
posted by Deoridhe at 5:21 PM on July 8, 2015 [3 favorites]


I'm pretty sure everything I know about discipline is right and that the issue is that the US doesn't spend enough money on education.

Of course it ends up spending the money anyway, just on massive prison and social costs. So the core issue is probably persuading its right-wingers that their common-sense discipline is actually costing them money and it would be cheaper to invest in children.
posted by bonaldi at 5:24 PM on July 8, 2015 [27 favorites]


Ahh, but bonaldi, you forget that the right wingers have a significant stake in the private, for-profit prison industry...
posted by overeducated_alligator at 5:46 PM on July 8, 2015 [8 favorites]


Negative reinforcement is literally torture.

negative reinforcement is the taking away of a stimulus (negative) that results in an increase (reinforcement) of behavior frequency.

e.g., "if you finish the math question, you can return to your seat", "if you tell the teacher, they will stop your neighbor from bothering you," but also "if you hit your neighbor, you will be removed from the classroom (where you hate being)"
posted by rebent at 5:49 PM on July 8, 2015 [11 favorites]


So asking the child why they behaved that way and dealing with the issue in the classroom instead of sending the kid off to the principal's office or giving the kid a suspension works better huh? Great insight there psychologists.
posted by banished at 5:58 PM on July 8, 2015 [1 favorite]


The Obviousness of Social and Educational Research Results To summarize: All social science results appear obvious to the lay reader, even if they contradict one another.
posted by Peach at 6:01 PM on July 8, 2015 [42 favorites]


So asking the child why they behaved that way and dealing with the issue in the classroom instead of sending the kid off to the principal's office or giving the kid a suspension works better huh? Great insight there psychologists.

Yes, this is truly dumb and obvious to everyone, which is why every school in the world is run on these principles and no one needs to be convinced of them with sound research.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 6:02 PM on July 8, 2015 [37 favorites]


Have any of y'all been in an askme parenting question lately? For all the 'hurhur stupid intellectuals its obvious' nearly every single parent has been told to do this. Which then leads into expecting teachers to do this. And refusing to leads to "stupid hippies negotiating with babies" and so on.
posted by geek anachronism at 6:03 PM on July 8, 2015 [1 favorite]


I would love to see more on this approach as it regards to teenagers. This makes a lot of sense for younger kids, but presumably/hopefully there's similar stuff focusing on older kids.

Almost all of the sub jobs that I take on are high school and (when I'm stuck with it) middle school. I'll only take elementary if I already know it's a good school or if I'm desperate for jobs, because elementary school is work. There's no "Here's your assignment, do your thing and self-manage while I do this other thing." Elementary means you're on from before class until everyone's out of the room. Discipline is also a very different animal, but in the end, the teens who act out are often just hurting and confused and unable to articulate things, just like the younger kids--only often that inability to articulate comes from social pressures rather than a lack of vocabulary.

Anyway, when you're subbing and you don't know the kids... One day I asked a 7th-grade boy to step outside after he'd ignored my fifth or sixth instruction to return to his seat and stop wandering around and talking. I didn't shout or anything, but I was firm about it. As soon as I had him outside he turned red-faced and started literally punching the hell out of the nearest locker. That told me right away that the last thing this kid needed was for someone to be angry at him.

I was, however, pretty angry at the regular classroom teacher for not leaving me any notes about this kid, but that's another general problem with discipline: teachers often don't want to admit there are problems. They don't warn you that Kid A or Kid B can be difficult, let alone why (if they know themselves), and then you wind up stepping on landmines.
posted by scaryblackdeath at 6:04 PM on July 8, 2015 [11 favorites]


We forget to tell you, because we have learned how to deal with them. It's like warning visitors about Aunt Edna who likes to sit on the mantelpiece and throw water balloons; you've learned to wear a raincoat and dodge, so you don't even think about it.
posted by Peach at 6:06 PM on July 8, 2015 [10 favorites]


Of course it ends up spending the money anyway, just on massive prison and social costs.

This.

It so doesn't have to be a problem in the first place.
posted by Smedleyman at 6:09 PM on July 8, 2015 [3 favorites]


See also: everything ever written by Alfie Kohn.

Glad this kind of thing is getting more exposure.
posted by edheil at 6:10 PM on July 8, 2015 [2 favorites]


We forget to tell you, because we have learned how to deal with them.

Admittedly, it's also because writing up sub plans can be a giant pain in the ass (I've been on that end plenty of times, too), but...gah. Sometimes I just don't understand where the priorities are. I'm usually just grateful when the teacher thinks to warn me about the life-threatening health hazards.
posted by scaryblackdeath at 6:11 PM on July 8, 2015 [3 favorites]


So asking the child why they behaved that way and dealing with the issue in the classroom instead of sending the kid off to the principal's office or giving the kid a suspension works better huh?

You send the child out of the classroom so the other 29 can do their work. If you're the only teacher in the classroom, you can't spend 45 minutes talking to one child about why they aren't working. Of course, the school could hire more aides, but they don't.
posted by betweenthebars at 6:11 PM on July 8, 2015 [15 favorites]


A friend of mine just finished her thesis which can be summed up as OMG YOU FUCKS INTERVENE WITH TEENAGERS TOO. Basically, these kids either get taken away from their families, or are able to access support, when they're little. But after a certain age that intervention just...stops. Or turns on the kid and they go to juvenile detention. Or is focused on their younger siblings. And so the telegraphed behavioural issues come up again and again and again, but they're bigger now and teenagers and so support networks just aren't there.
posted by geek anachronism at 6:18 PM on July 8, 2015 [9 favorites]


So asking the child why they behaved that way
No. Kid's hate being asked 'why' they behaved in a certain way because often they don't know and it just shows them up as being unable to answer the teacher's question, again.

'Why' questions don't get to the underlying issues, only the surface ones - "cos Tom took my pencil", "cos Renee gave me the stink-eye" are not accurate answers when the kid is doing all sorts of stuff, and has been for months if not years. For example, when I was caught graffitting the school toilets with stuff about a pedo teacher (later charged), my behaviour wasn't actually about the pedo teacher at all but the abuse I was getting at home.

Guiding kids to help them work out a why for themselves, or even working towards a notion of 'why' is a much better option. It's about building emotional intelligence and, as the article says, about helping them develop self discipline rather than imposing discipline from above.

I have just returned from a week in a disadvantaged rural school with a high proportion of low income indigenous students. The school's behaviour management program was focused on 'catching kids being good' and positive reinforcement. And the kids were just fantastic. Sure, some misbehaved but they didn't become the focus of attention. Kids being good got the attention and as soon as a 'bad' kid was good, they got positive attention too.

However, one distinction between this school and others was the class sizes. Never more than 15 kids and staffed by teachers and aides who loved the kids.

In my experience there are no really bad kids, but there are often kids having a really bad time.
posted by Thella at 6:40 PM on July 8, 2015 [47 favorites]


Just to clarify: B. F. Skinner was actually systematically opposed to the use of punishment to shape behavior. He was a champion of positive reinforcement, which he (almost certainly wrongly) thought could be the basis for a utopian society. Punishment was more Pavlov's gig.
posted by belarius at 7:03 PM on July 8, 2015 [10 favorites]


Youtube playlist of Ross Greene talk.
posted by lagomorph at 7:31 PM on July 8, 2015 [1 favorite]




I've finally scanned this because I saw it making the rounds on Facebook over the last few days, and when it popped up here, figured I should give it a look. it's what I suspected - it's nothing new. I trained to be a teacher 20 years ago when this approach was called "student-centered" and the lead thinkers ran under the flag The Responsive Classroom. The work I depended on most heavily was Ruth Charney's Teaching Children to Care.

It's good stuff; it worked then, and it works now. There are many reasons schools are not structured to do this, but whether it works is not one of them.
posted by Miko at 8:00 PM on July 8, 2015 [10 favorites]


Both my parents taught at a vocational high school. They handled what would be called now "at-risk" kids. Kids that had so many behavior or academic problems that the regular high school didn't want them there.
My dad, who was principal by the time I was in high school, looked at his school as a last chance for some kids. There in a shop class or food services class, some of these kids might get some skills that could build them a job and maybe a life. The rest were, as he frequently put it, "killing time until jail."
Both of them had a reputation for being fair and willing to help you out and from what I saw and still see in that community, they did.
Sadly, by high school a lot of those kids were already locked into behavior patterns that made it almost impossible to pull out of the tailspin. But for every kid they couldn't help, there were at least a few that there were a few adults in life that will treat you like a human and give you a shot.
posted by teleri025 at 8:20 PM on July 8, 2015 [1 favorite]


Miko, can you expand on the 'structure' of schools that stops this from happeneing? And if this type of teacher training was happenening 20yrs ago, why isn't it standard? Why are schools retaining the punishment model?
posted by Thella at 10:10 PM on July 8, 2015 [1 favorite]


I am not Miko, but I can tell you about the structure of middle and high schools. The vast majority of schools don't have the funding to support it. The article talked about how the teacher and counselor sat down with the first grader for something like 45 minutes to get to his breakthrough; that becomes impossible when you have large numbers of students in a class or a school. At the secondary level most teachers only see a student for 45 minutes a day, and that's when they're in a group with 30-40 students. What do you do with the others when you're giving one student intense one-on-one work? What do you do when you have several of those students in the same class and are having different crises at the same time? If there are aides or co-teachers in the room it's feasible, or if you have small class sizes you can do it, but not when it's just one adult with 35 students and just 45 minutes to get everyone to learn something. The student in the article had an aide assigned to him specifically, and her job was paid for through a grant.

Nor does it stop at the teachers. School counselors are hilariously overworked, sometimes on the order of 300 students to one counselor. Add in all their other work of managing student schedules, helping with college apps, doing emergency suicide assessment and Child Services calls, documenting learning accommodations, and organizing standardized assessments like AP/ACT/SAT/etc. and there simply isn't enough manpower for it.

The punishment model stays because it's familiar, and many schools don't have the time or money to try something new. And, when you're in a high-stakes atmosphere where trying something new and it doesn't work creates massively punitive results, there's not a lot of incentive to step out of line.
posted by lilac girl at 10:45 PM on July 8, 2015 [15 favorites]


100% on board for this kind of treatment model. Acting out = unmet need. Help child ID unmet need, verbalize it in some capacity to the right resource, and equip said child with coping strategies if need can't be met immediately.
posted by Hermione Granger at 10:49 PM on July 8, 2015 [2 favorites]


The Responsive Classroom and Teaching Children To Care are the only textbooks from grad school that I still pick up and read again, Miko!
posted by Hermione Granger at 10:50 PM on July 8, 2015 [3 favorites]


In my experience there are no really bad kids, but there are often kids having a really bad time.

So very, very much this. If only teachers--the most important people in our civilization, the people tasked with continuing civilization by (as I have said here more than once) turning small monstrous humans into bigger less monstrous humans--were given the resources to really look at this.

Yeah, sure, we've all had bad teachers who didn't care. I think it's telling, though, that I've never heard of anyone talking about young teachers who don't care. It's the older ones who've had the caring ground out of them by bureaucracy.

Every teacher in the world deserves goddamn medals and gold plated pensions and every moment they ever get to have a glass of wine and not be having to teach for a moment. It's being an ultraparent to dozens and dozens of kids every day and it is a fucking crime that we don't recognize the difficulty of what they do and reward it appropriately.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 12:02 AM on July 9, 2015 [9 favorites]


What If Everything You Knew About Disciplining Kids Was Wrong?

Wait, everything? Shit, does this mean I have to get rid of The Wheel?
posted by EndsOfInvention at 12:30 AM on July 9, 2015 [6 favorites]


No, it just means that the Parenting Matrix (You aren't still using the Wheel, are you? It's sorely out of date and even Adler suggests that you upgrade) needs some revisions in order to be brought in line with modern thought. It's a significant enough change that it'll be folded into the PM 3.5, rather than being released as errata. There are enough improvements that the upgrade looks worth the price, even bought new, but if you're already a subscription customer, you'll get the PM 3.5 as a part of your subscription price, as if it were a normal expansion.
posted by frimble at 1:45 AM on July 9, 2015 [4 favorites]


Teachers are not the most important people in the world. We spend a very limited time with students, and in the US a very limited part of the year. Our effect on students is perceptible, granted, and every once in a while transformative, but teaching is not as powerful as people think it is. Parents and society at large have a far more profound effect. School only works well when there is a connection between between life inside the walls and outside it. I teach the privileged few who can either pay for an education or get someone to pay for it, and even then I'm fighting a battle against societal beliefs that school is boring, that teachers are either second-class intellects who are always wrong or deranged purveyors of some kind of canonical "truth," that true knowledge is what you vaguely remembered of your own schooling, and that you can succeed if you just grab a grade of sorts with the help of cramming, drugs, "gut" courses, plagiarism, the occasional lawsuit, and perfunctory homework.

Overstated, yes. But watch movies about teaching, memoirs about childhood, or music videos about school. That fine and irrational cultural disdain for education is reinforced at home, because one story we love to hear is one that rejects teachers and teaching, and the other one glorifies the "one true teacher" we all think we had.

In other words, being a kid is often uncomfortable and even miserable, and school is part of that, but it is not the “whole for the part, container for the contained." Fixing school would be nice, but like getting rid of the Confederate flag, it will not stop the problem that school signifies.
posted by Peach at 4:45 AM on July 9, 2015 [8 favorites]


i'm 36 and a lot of my friends have procreated over the last 10 years. one thing i've noticed is that they try very to hard to act like they're kids are people with feelings. sure, kids need discplined sometimes, but the way they do it is so much different than what we grew up with.

i was constantly told that my feelings were irrelevant and wrong, especially if i was upset about something.

the part in the beginning of the article where the helper takes Will down to the creek and lets him be angry and frustrated and then THEY COME UP WITH A PLAN nearly has me in tears at 8 am.

i WISH someone had told little me that sort of thing. i was a "well adjusted" kid for the most part and didn't have these kinds of issues, but having someone you trust say "it's ok to be angry/sad/hurt/frightened/frustrated" would have probably kept me out of a lot of therapy as an adult.

i see my friends saying this with their kids and it just amazes me and makes me feel even more like i have some really good people as friends.
posted by sio42 at 5:05 AM on July 9, 2015 [14 favorites]


And if this type of teacher training was happenening 20yrs ago, why isn't it standard?

It's a dissertation's worth of talk, and I don't have the time or inclination to type out my many critiques of public school structure and management, but it most certainly was happening 20 years ago, and there are schools where it is standard (a lot of them are private). To become the standard for public schools, two things would be needed: (a) money (most schools are under-resourced; teachers don't get the time to spend with students because they have too many administrative duties and too little in-classroom support, class sizes remain too large; other staffing services would need to expand to create the time-consuming supportive matrix kids need); and (b) cultural change - a deep shift in the way our culture thinks about and plans for what education is and what students need and should get at school. School management is a mess, lots of dead weight in the system, local control and politics create poor and underinformed oversight bodies, teachers are relatively disempowered in setting the standards and developing the school-wide methods for student growth, curriculum and instruction, most teachers are still not trained this way because the continuing demand for teachers results in large 'mill' programs at many universities that take practical rather than theoretical approaches.

In education, we know what works, and we have for a long time. When you look at many elite private schools, you can see that the wealthy already understand this and have chosen accordingly. The reasons we don't implement those methods that work are not because they're mysterious or poorly understood or not evidence-based. They're social, cultural, political reasons.
posted by Miko at 5:26 AM on July 9, 2015 [22 favorites]


Has any child in history ever been brought up correctly?
posted by acb at 7:32 AM on July 9, 2015 [1 favorite]


No, but they certainly haven't all been brought up equally - there are kids who get it better, and kids who get it worse. I'd like to see us exert some influence on what that balance is, rather than throwing up our hands and muttering 'human condition...'

Especially now that we are becoming aware that childhood trauma is linked to profound social ills that surface much later - abuse, addiction, range and anger problems, violence, poverty - it seems that we should be devoting more of our attention to things that happen while young people are in the earliest stages of development.
posted by Miko at 8:12 AM on July 9, 2015 [9 favorites]


How we deal with the most challenging kids remains rooted in B.F. Skinner's mid-20th-century philosophy that human behavior is determined by consequences and bad behavior must be punished. (Pavlov figured it out first, with dogs.)

I have no argument with the basic thrust of the piece, but man this is the worst bit of BS hand-wavey "history" I've read in a long time. Skinner invented the idea of punishing children for bad behavior? Jesus wept.
posted by yoink at 9:57 AM on July 9, 2015 [2 favorites]


Skinner sure didn't start it and he didn't practice it.
posted by Peach at 10:02 AM on July 9, 2015 [1 favorite]


In a more typical school, a kid who seems to be threatening others might be physically restrained, segregated into a special-ed room, or sent home for the day.

You know, I'm actually okay with that. When a kid is threatening other kids, there are more problems there than just the development of the kid who is behaving badly. There's everyone else who is impacted by the bad behavior, and gets to see their concerns treated as meaningless.

My daughter, in elementary school, had one of these kids in her super-progressive classroom. He had some behavioral and social 'challenges', which basically meant that he bullied the other kids, and was sexually aggressive towards the other children. (Humping them and trying to grab them against their consent, etc). Yes, it was because of what he had seen in his home environment. Yes, it's very sad. But allowing that kid to stay in class and trying to attend to his needs rather than the needs of the 28 other children in the classroom is a problem. And it teaches those children that teachers will not hear their pleas, will not protect them from danger and humiliation and aggression - that it is the bullies who are in need of special help rather than the bullied.
posted by corb at 12:09 PM on July 9, 2015 [5 favorites]


I had to delete my rant about my son's experience of school. Smart kid, difficult temperament. It was awful, he didn't get a good education, and we should be able to do better. He responds well to structure & discipline, and to positive reinforcement; these were lacking. There was a horrible lack of communication with me and his Dad; we're divorced. Schools should deal with the fact that kids may have 2 households, and learn to communicate with 2 parents, or the grandparents who are stepping up or whatever.
posted by theora55 at 1:30 PM on July 9, 2015 [2 favorites]


> "But allowing that kid to stay in class and trying to attend to his needs rather than the needs of the 28 other children in the classroom is a problem. And it teaches those children that teachers will not hear their pleas, will not protect them from danger and humiliation and aggression - that it is the bullies who are in need of special help rather than the bullied."

Completely agreed, corb, and I'm sorry to hear your daughter's school failed to protect her. It's like the boy's deep, understandable, sad needs totally trumped all of his classmates' needs for safety and bodily integrity-- and that's a serious problem. And holy shit, 28 kids in an elementary class, and at least one with serious, sexually-inappropriate behavioral challenges? Way too much of a burden to put on one lone teacher, but we do it all the time in the US.

Going back to the strategy outlined in the article, and applying it now to corb's story here, I'm not at all convinced that giving, say, an aggressive child and/or one who has a pattern of bullying, the attention, relationship and reward of 45-minutes of undivided adult interaction immediately after he physically harms another child is the best solution either. That attention seems like a reward. Kid acts out = he immediately gets nurtured, but what about his victims? Shouldn't the victims of bullying get some quality attention, too, where they are fully heard by a caring adult for 45 minutes who helps them to problem-solve? Shouldn't the children who have a track record of playing well with the other children be rewarded with 45 minutes of undivided adult attention sometimes, too?

> "When you look at many elite private schools, you can see that the wealthy already understand this and have chosen accordingly."

And while I, too, am no big fan of The Wealthy, I get it.
posted by hush at 3:47 PM on July 9, 2015 [1 favorite]


Shouldn't the children who have a track record of playing well with the other children be rewarded with 45 minutes of undivided adult attention sometimes, too?

It is not an either-or situation. Kids are treated with empathy, but if some kid is on their third warning, they'll probably just get sent out and quickly. Ideally the teacher needs to find a way to redirect the kid that works, but that can sometimes take a while. As you point out, it's sometimes a dilemma to be empathetic to everyone, at least in the short term.
posted by GuyZero at 4:01 PM on July 9, 2015


Yeah, I wouldn't interpret this to say that a kid acting out violently is going to get 45 minutes of loving attention while everyone else gets ignored. Obviously, that kid does need some form of attentive help, but so does everyone else, and it's not zero-sum. A properly staffed school community can manage both sets of needs. A lot of "responsive classroom" stuff is in fact about talking with the other kids and making sure they feel safe and secure, too, even sometimes talking pretty plainly about the kids who have a lot of trouble controlling themselves. I think it's easy to mistake this kind of approach as discipline- and structure-free, when in fact it's a lot more structured (and much more demanding on the teachers to create that sort of structure) and a lot more focused on getting behavior organized than most punitive systems, which kind of create enough of a threatening environment that kids' issues get pushed under the rug, controlled, somewhat, in the classroom, but popping out elsewhere nastily - at home, at recess, in the neighborhood, alone having terrors.
posted by Miko at 7:54 PM on July 9, 2015 [4 favorites]


Yeah, I wouldn't interpret this to say that a kid acting out violently is going to get 45 minutes of loving attention while everyone else gets ignored. Obviously, that kid does need some form of attentive help, but so does everyone else, and it's not zero-sum.

I mean, for an elementary school-aged kid to be acting sexually aggressive towards other kids and to ignore consent, this child must have endured tremendous amounts of chaos and trauma. And no, not every school is equipped to deal with children like this. But some are, and choose not to because it's freaking hard to do.

The middle school at which I teach is in one of the richest counties in America, and we have two school psychologists (one there full time, and one split evenly between two schools), two administrators, a school nurse, and a ton of support staff for our just-over-500 students. If we had the boy corb described, there would be a bevy of qualified adults to talk to him and to help him. And even if he occupied one of them for a few hours, there are still a lot of other adults to spend time with other children. I think we do a pretty good job, but we're incredibly lucky to have the kind of resources we have.

I find it really disheartening how much blame and responsibility many adults assign to "problem" kids given that many of them come from abuse, neglect, or grief. The model in most schools is to make that kid the "other" and segregate him or her (though usually him) as much as possible. Time with an adult who cares enough to help troubled children is not a reward. It's basic human decency. Should we protect the other kids from their abusive behaviour? Absolutely. But sending them back to their home, which is statistically the most likely place where these children are hurt, seems absolutely insane.

My younger brother was that kid. He got kicked out of two middle schools - one public, one private - for his explosive temper and tendency to seek attention in the most destructive way possible. He broke so many things that belonged to me or my family that I eventually just kept anything valuable on my person as much as possible. Fast forward to our early 30's, and it comes out that there was substantial, long-term abuse by an older sibling. Sometimes I think about how different our lives would have been if he had an adult who had actually persisted in listening and caring.

That makes me want to try harder with those difficult kids. And it makes me want to stop my other students from letting that student become the "other." I've seen the consequences of that first-hand.
posted by guster4lovers at 11:46 PM on July 9, 2015 [5 favorites]


I think it's not just a matter of resources, in some cases. A friend of mine is an educational assistant and works particularly with the high-needs children. She's done a lot of research into what has worked with other kids with similar problems. But when she tries to put those tactics to work, she gets told off by some teachers and other ed assistants for being too weak. "Don't be afraid to punish her if she's naughty" they say about the severely autistic girl who likes school but has trouble with sensory processing.

My friend has her own kids and certainly isn't afraid to discipline them when it's needed; but this little girl isn't being naughty. She's just trying to do her best in a very challenging environment. Punishing might teach her to stop poking other kids, but it won't teach her how to manage her sensory overload. Eventually she'll stop poking and find a different outlet instead, and there's no guarantee it won't be even more disruptive to the other kids. But giving her a sensory ball to occupy her hands so she can focus on the teacher instead of getting distracted is "coddling" her. It looks like "giving her the techniques and equipment she needs to learn self-management and then participate fully in class" to me, but some teachers seem to think a 6 year old should just grit her teeth and behave like a grown-up instead.

There's so much emphasis on punishment and consequences. It looks the same to me as when people want to punish welfare recipients as if that will help them find jobs. Practical help is passed by in favour of blame and shame.
posted by harriet vane at 12:41 AM on July 10, 2015 [2 favorites]


And I feel like I should add: my friend's own children are a delight to have around. Well-behaved and kind and creative. Nobody is perfect, but I feel confident that her research-backed methods are better than a punish/reward system based on 19th century morality.
posted by harriet vane at 12:44 AM on July 10, 2015


In my experience there are no really bad kids, but there are often kids having a really bad time.

I feel like this is one of the most profound things I've read in a long time.
posted by lollymccatburglar at 4:23 AM on July 10, 2015 [1 favorite]


"Should we protect the other kids from their abusive behaviour? Absolutely."

Ok, but again -- How, Specifically, Do We Do This? What I have read of the peer-reviewed education research on managing behaviorally-challenged students in mainstream classrooms seems like the research is mixed, and very little of it is scientifically "good" research because the education community, in general, doesn't understand the need for randomized treatment-control groups, and activists of various stripes tend to take narrow results from well-designed psychology studies and turn them into blanket statements that are not what the psychologists originally intended.

For the folks who are opposed to aggressive children being "physically restrained, segregated into a special-ed room, or sent home for the day," what's your preferred strategy for keeping the other kids safe, too? Miko said "talking with the other kids and making sure they feel safe and secure, too, even sometimes talking pretty plainly about the kids who have a lot of trouble controlling themselves." And that sounds totally reasonable... as long as teachers understand Title IX rights and are super careful not to violate the child's legally-protected privacy. But then others here seem primarily worried about unfairly "othering" the aggressive child who has probably been horribly traumatized at home - and I get that, too. Is there a middle ground? Is there a specific strategy that works to, in borrowing from corb's parlance, "let the victimized kids gets to see their concerns treated as meaningful"?
posted by hush at 12:29 PM on July 10, 2015 [1 favorite]


Randomized treatment-control groups are darn near an impossibility in school settings. Aside from the fact that getting permissions tends to be a nightmare (why so many studies are conducted on college-age students instead) and the ethics are complicated, a classroom is absolutely chock full of unpredictable variables, not least the self-concept and history of the teacher. The results are going to be thoroughly contaminated.

My own doctoral fieldwork was an ethnographic case study of two teachers in different schools, each of whom had a classroom that looked exactly the same and was scheduled exactly the same as the classroom next to them, and had the same curriculum but were in fact teaching what was effectively a different curriculum because of the things they believed about students and about teaching.

And the kicker, the thing that made me realize how much part belief played, was the nature of who the teacher thought were the "bad kids" in each classroom.
posted by Peach at 6:35 PM on July 12, 2015 [3 favorites]


How, Specifically, Do We Do This?

Again, this isn't a technical problem or a research problem, but a problem of will.
posted by Miko at 7:19 PM on July 13, 2015 [1 favorite]


Well, yes and no. It certainly IS a "research problem" in that the people who run education in this country, and (as you correctly point out) send their own kids to impossible-for-average-folks'-kids-to-get-into-nevermind-afford tony private schools (See e.g. Arne Duncan) actually are relying on bad research to when it comes to policy decisions like tying testing to forcing underperforming urban neighborhood schools to close, but I digress. The best research is unanimous that virtually all US students do better in schools without high concentrations of poverty. We completely lack the political will to combat poverty - I'm with you there. (And by the way, I've favorited most of your comments in this thread, Miko, so we may be agreeing here somewhat.)

The nuance missing in both the article and this thread is the reality that we have a cultural issue of differing parenting values in differing SES communities that progressives, like the ones in this article, wrongly judge to be some kind of a universal problem of lacking empathy for children wherever the values happen to contradict their own parenting and community norms. Well-intended, high SES parents desirous of a “progressive, child-centered” education look down at education leaders and so-called "bad" teachers who champion the kinds of classroom management approaches that are precisely what their low-SES urban constituents are saying they want in their schools. Low SES urban parents tend to prefer strict discipline and an emphasis on the basics. (See Fordham Foundation President Mike Petrilli's "Diverse Schools Dilemma" for a succinct overview of the body of research supporting this.) Meanwhile, high SES parents and educators in privileged places like Marin County, CA generally want environments that suggest their whole child will be honored, with programming that encourages creativity, and an emphasis on self-esteem. I completely disagree that theirs is the One True Way. Their community's "will" does not automatically equal everybody else in America's "will," too. We contain cultural multitudes.

I disagree with people in this thread suggesting that Alfie Kohn's ideas are helpful or appropriate, particularly in low SES school contexts - he has a long long history of taking good ideas to bad extremes (See here for a fun essay). Fortunately, he is no longer destroying the lives of low SES kids like he was back in the day in the 70s and 80s, as he’s since moved on to high SES kids, which is hopefully less dangerous for society.
posted by hush at 9:13 AM on July 18, 2015


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