I think back to the days when I was a teacher before becoming a parent, which was about twenty years ago. Standing amidst 25 to sometimes 35 students, there were many moments where I just couldn’t think of how to make a student do something he or she was refusing to do.
I admit that sometimes I resorted to punishment rather than positive discipline and all these years later I cringe at those thoughts, wishing I could go back in time to change things. I now have better perspective into the potentially negative effects of that punishment.
Today I opened my Facebook profile to learn that a twelve-year-old boy was told to stay in to miss recess in order to write lines because the lines he was instructed to write last week in his binder (for not finishing his homework) didn’t make it to school that day.
I’m trying to write this post from a neutral perspective but I’m going to be honest and let you know that I’m livid. I’m upset because lines are being used as a punishment, that recess was taken away, but more so that this student is going to have to work hard to continue to love learning.
As I’ve walked through the halls of some schools recently, I’ve seen children being told to “stay on the wall” (sit against a wall during recess for a prescribed time – in a place they can be seen by the other students), doing lines, shouted at, and told that if they made any sounds, their art time was going to be taken away. I’ve even heard of teachers throwing desks at students and shaming them in front of the whole class.
I have a great deal of respect for teachers, and value their impact on our young people. My goal is not to be negative towards teachers in general but rather to address the use of punishment in schools.
One of the important tenants of the school I started this year is that our adults will not use punishment, shaming, belittling, or any other negative means when interacting with students or each other.
I asked the students in our school to share experiences they’ve had in different schools they’ve been to in the past. This is what they had to say when I asked, “Did any of the teachers in your old school take away recess when you did something wrong?”
Three of them said, “yes.” I then asked them to tell me about why their recess was taken away. One said he kicked a ball that mistakenly hit another boy in the face. The teacher told him he had to miss the next recess as a result. He also mentioned that he’d lose recess or have to sit against the wall for doing something he wasn’t supposed to.
I asked him: “Did it make you not do that again?”
He looked right at me and said, “Nope.”
He went on to say: “It’s not effective because every single kid who got ‘put on the wall’ still did the same thing every day. I don’t understand why the teachers kept getting them to do that.”
Another student said, “The punishment had nothing to do with what happened! It didn’t make sense.”
These boys are right! Punishments like these actually have a very small likelihood of changing further behaviour. Similar to what we know about punishments as they are related to parenting, methods that cause a child to go into their fight-or-flight part of their minds just get kids to be mad, preoccupied about defending themselves, and hating school.
Negative punishments also can cause a rift in the relationship with the teacher, which is a significant problem. It is well known that a positive relationship between a child and his or her teacher strongly influences how much that child likes school and learning.
In this article published by the American Psychological Association, the authors said:
“Picture a student who feels a strong personal connection to her teacher, talks with her teacher frequently, and receives more constructive guidance and praise rather than just criticism from her teacher. The student is likely to trust her teacher more, show more engagement in learning, behave better in class and achieve at higher levels academically. Positive teacher-student relationships draw students into the process of learning and promote their desire to learn (assuming that the content material of the class is engaging, age-appropriate and well matched to the student's skills).”
Two years ago, along with fellow psychotherapist Katie Hurley, we wrote about the practice of taking recess away. The point of our Huffington Post Education article “Let the Children Play! Especially During Recess” was to encourage teachers to stop using this practice.
When this post was first published, there were hundreds of comments on my Parenting Educator Facebook page from parents frustrated with the negative methods that teachers were using to correct their children. I also heard from many parents that they didn’t think it was their place to bring this up with teachers.
*I do believe that is it our place to address when negative punishment is used with our children.
The question is how to do this without undermining the teacher. In some cases, parents even need to be mindful to not make their child a target in the eyes of the teacher (I’ve seen this happen).
As with any situation between two people, I suggest speaking with the teacher first before going to the vice principal or principal.
I’m a big fan of relationship building so I suggest approaching that conversation mindfully: ask to book a time that suits the teacher come in with an approach of being on the same team. Don’t ambush the teacher at pickup time.
Open your conversation in a non-threatening way (we’re trying to keep the teacher out of a defensive state of mind). The challenge is to address the behaviour you don’t agree with while at the same time still communicating to the teacher that you believe he or she is a capable person.
Trying something like this: “My son told me that he has to do lines because he didn’t complete his homework. I’m here to learn more about that.”
If the teacher says something like, “That’s right. Your son was goofing off during class and didn’t get his homework done so he has to do lines,” try to get the teacher thinking of alternatives.
I suggest something like this: “Lines aren’t really going to work with my son so I was wondering if you’ll consider a different approach? After I spoke with him, I learned that he didn’t really know how to do the math. Could you please check to see if he’s having trouble first?”
Continue to offer suggestions that encourage the teacher to connect more with your child. If the teacher is open to this, see how the next few weeks go, but if the teacher blames your child or refuses to listen to you, it’s time to visit an administrator.
If you are looking for resources to take with you to a meeting with a teacher, administrator, or even coach, here are a couple I suggest:
The Edutopia Facebook page
Katie Hurley, LCSW 's writing -- particularly for the Washington Post. Her most recent one there is: "The dark side of classroom behavior management charts"
My article which addresses how to reduce the stress of homework (we do not assign ANY homework in our school).