Every child deserves to feel safe and welcome in their school. And yet, sometimes, the behaviour of other students threatens that safety. Traditional disciplinary action for kids that disrupt the learning and threaten the safety of others has run the gamut from corporal punishment (yikes) to detentions, suspensions and expulsions. Did you know that some school boards in Canada didn’t ban the use of the strap as a tool of discipline until the 1990s?! Phew, glad those days are finally over.
We live in a new world, with a huge body of research (and the unsolicited input of an arsenal internet sanctimommies) to guide child rearing in 2016. We know the strength in positive discipline. And we’’ve seen the overwhelming evidence that out of school suspensions do more harm than good.
So, what’s a school to do when behaviour is out of control. One school south of the border is trying what they call “reverse suspensions," which don’t involve sending a student home, but rather having parents attend school for the day, shadowing their child. Is this the way forward?
I have to say no on this one. The article alludes to the fact that this system deters negative behaviours because it embarrasses kids. I don’t believe in using shame or embarrassment as a tool of disciplining. I also think it is a difficult system to enforce - requiring parents to miss work or other responsibilities to attend school for a day? What if they are caring for another child or family member? I don’t think families should have to incur a financial hardship to be a part of their child’s consequence.
There are two stand-out advantages to this creative approach to discipline that I do support. Firstly, I agree that families and schools need to work together to guide children as they navigate their way through school and it’s expectations. There needs to be open communication between parents and teachers. Secondly, I applaud the school’s effort at a creative approach and for shunning the tired, ineffective suspensions. As educators, we need to continue to find innovative, useful tools to teach students positive behaviour.
I think the idea of restorative justice has a place in our schools today. The restorative justice approach focuses on connecting with the misbehaving student, talking about what led to the behaviour, assessing who the behaviour is impacting and making steps to repair the damage done.
It’s not about having a little chat and then turning a blind eye to the impact disruptive behaviour has in our classrooms. The discussion part is supported by a consequence that makes sense in the situation - apologizing to those they offended, creating a video on better ways to manage anger, replanting the garden they carelessly tromped through, missing out on an activity they were late for. Consequences are consistently enforced and are tailored to the transgression.
Of course, a glaring flaw in studies which look at the negative impact of school suspensions is that they only consider the impact of the suspension on the offending student. Sometimes, removing an unsafe student from the environment benefits the rest of the kids in the class, allowing the teacher to devote time and energy to others. Schools must continue to find ways to help all students achieve their goals and feel safe. Alternative environments within the school can be used - not as a punitive space for “naughty” kids - but as a place where a student can go to regain control. Restorative justice can only be achieved once a child is again thinking with their calm, rational brain.
Effective teachers have a recognizable, consistent code of conduct in their classroom and build a personal connection with each student which goes a long way in avoiding negative behaviours, but sometimes even the best teacher has a student who loses control. Schools must continue to find innovative and effective ways to support their students, and it is vital that both families and schools work in tandem to teach kids self-control.