One afternoon, when Thomas was tiny and had just learned to toddle around in his Nanny’s garden, I stood chatting with a neighbor who suddenly shouted, “Get out of the flowers before someone smacks your bum!” My baby burst into tears, and I experienced my first moment of righteous parenting anger. No one had ever shouted at my son! This led to a conversation about corporal punishment in which I assured Nanny’s friend that I will never spank my children - not to keep them from touching a hot stove, or even to teach them to stay out of the road.
Several years later, I was having a heart to heart with Thomas the teen about cleaning up the kitchen. I just couldn’t understand. How can I explain, ask nicely, and gently remind day after day and still come home to warm mayonnaise on the counter, and crusts of bread? He can watch me wipe away tears of frustration and still leave a mess the next day. But when an angry voice booms down to the basement all the boys come running to clean the mess, and the kitchen is clean for a week. Why did an angry voice work more efficiently than my rational words? There are times when I feel that if I were to slam a door, I would get a better result than if I try to rationalize using words. And I this leaves me so utterly disappointed.
Punishment works! Humiliation too.
Afraid to make Mom mad, the boys keep the counter clean.
Ground them for a month, no more t.v. bad guys get squirted with water guns.
A walk of shame to turn in the cell phone, no more texting in class.
The flip of a card, no more sassin’ the teacher.
We have boys who drive to Taco Bell to spend money for their afternoon snack.
Stir crazy kids somersault off the back of the couch.
Now, she leans back in her chair to reach around Chris and tap Maritza on the shoulder but crashes to the floor.
No more smart talk, but a grudging conformity.
I have heard, that negative reinforcement can extinguish an undesired behavior.
I’ve read that it is most likely replaced with another.
I’ve noticed, that this seems to be true.
I have also done some research, and been inspired by educators who’ve been doing this work before me. I believe in the philosophy of Restorative Justice, and our community circle meets every day after lunch. When we build a classroom community where each person is valued, kids are eager to do the hard work of coming back to the circle. We bring our concerns and our frustrations to the group, and great ideas come from these kids! They reassure one another that team work is hard, and make suggestions for what to do when a disagreement turns into an argument. “Instead of coloring on her castle, you could ask if you can make the rainbow.” They suggest compromise and practice listening. “I heard Hayden say he wanted to make a puppet show in the snow, and I think that would make a good part two to your story.”
I’ve seen skill building work. My student who can’t stand to be excluded will sometimes push or hit her way into the group. Now, she refers to the chart on the wall to select a sentence frame to fit the situation. “Would it be ok if I play wall ball with you at recess?” “Will you be my partner for __?” And she has been rewarded with acceptance.
This student is one smart little girl! When we sit together before she heads to recess, and acknowledge that this is a difficult time, she can brainstorm three or four ways to get other kids to listen to her ideas. They don’t work every time, and she still makes mistakes, but she is not giving up because she is also finding success! What joy when two girls asked her to sing their made-up song during sharing time. The Think:Kids approach on OHSU Department of Psychaiatry’s website describes the underlying shift in mindset that comes with a Collaborative Problem Solving approach: We used to think “kids do well if they want to” but now we believe that “children do well if they can”. We trust kids to do their best, to be their best.
So, I remain true to my ideals. I resist the pressure to conform. I try to work within the system that my school has adopted, but sometimes I feel like I am alone. I defend myself when someone says, “I know you don’t make them flip cards.” I assure my colleague that I am following the guidance I have been given… I will ask a child to flip his card, if after meeting and reflecting, talking and some teaching, the behavior continues. The only students who continue the misbehavior after plenty of teaching are those who are on their own special plan, and are exempt from the card chart. So… my chart stays green.
The terrible consequence…. the punishment, the humiliating walk of shame… only comes to those who have been instructed well, and still have not learned their lesson. And, well… I am a teacher after all. That is what I do. I teach. And, I think I do it pretty well. They are kids. They make mistakes and they learn from them. And, I think they do it pretty well. Nice job kids. No card flips around here.
OHSU Medical School: Department of Psychiatry, Think:Kids
Lives in the Balance, Changing the Conversation about and with Behaviorally Challenging Kids
Peace Circles: Listen to the Children
Restorative Justice Online