The counterintuitive step you must take in all school discipline conversations

The counterintuitive step you must take in all school discipline conversations

I started reading Crucial Conversations to get better at communicating with colleagues. But the applications to school discipline soon became blindingly obvious.

The authors define a “crucial conversation” as one in which: (1) opinions vary, (2) emotions run strong, and (3) stakes are high. Almost every disciplinary intervention I’ve been a part of meets these criteria. For some, school discipline conjures images of Morgan Freeman policing groups of rowdy teenagers in a cafeteria or auditorium in Stand by Me; in reality, most of the critical work in school discipline takes place behind closed (figuratively if not literally) doors, one-on-one between student and adult.

Crucial conversations fail when one party comes to believe, consciously or not, that the interaction is no longer “safe.”

When it’s safe, you can say anything.

Here’s why gifted communicators keep a close eye on safety. Dialogue calls for the free flow of meaning—period. And nothing kills the flow of meaning like fear. When you fear that people aren’t buying into your ideas, you start pushing too hard. When you fear that you may be harmed in some way, you start withdrawing and hiding. Both those reactions—to fight and to take flight—are motivated by the same emotion: fear. On the other hand, if you make it safe enough, you can talk about almost anything and people will listen. If you don’t fear you’re being attacked and humiliated, you yourself can hear almost anything and not become defensive.

The two most common responses to a lack of safety are “silence and violence.” Silence consists of “any act to purposefully withhold meaning from the pool of information,” and includes masking (covering up one’s true feelings), avoiding (steering away from sensitive subjects), and withdrawing (refusing to engage entirely). “Violence” is any “verbal strategy that attempts to convince, control, or compel others to your point of view”, including controlling (coercing others to your way of thinking), labeling (dismissing), and attacking (making the other person suffer through belittling and threatening).

In all crucial conversations, we must be able to spot when others move to silence or violence and recognize those as indicators of a lack of safety. But we also have to recognize when we ourselves go “silent or violent.” In disciplinary situations, after an incident has occurred, the most common scenario is we (the adults) go to “violence” while the student goes to “silence.”

This feels “right” in some way, perhaps because it’s the mental model most of us grew up with. Surely the offender has “earned” this tongue-lashing; how else will we communicate to the student that they’ve seriously transgressed?

In reality, although these kinds of conversations may provide us a short-term sense of accomplishment, they accomplish little in terms of (1) restoring the harm done to relationships and/or property (2) ensuring the student does not engage in the same behavior again. Long-term progress can only be made if both parties move away from silence and violence and toward productive dialogue, and that requires that both adult and student feel safe in the conversation.

“Safe??” you say. “But it is the student who has committed the offense! He has put the safety of others in danger, and now we have to worry about making him feel safe??” 

In my next post, I’ll explain why this counterintuitive move is in fact necessary, and what steps we can take to make it happen successfully.

When a field trip becomes a lesson in Constitutional rights…

When a field trip becomes a lesson in Constitutional rights…

Readers of the blog know that I’m interested in the intersection between students’ Constitutional rights and school discipline. A recent story about a group of 8th graders who refused to take a photo with House speaker Paul Ryan, while ultimately relatively harmless, presents some fun questions for fellow Constitutional nerds out there.

It’s long been established that students “don’t shed their Constitutional rights at the schoolhouse door,” but several high-profile court cases have established limits on the free-speech rights of students at school. Most notably, Tinker v. Des Moines established the “Tinker standard,” which requires schools to determine whether student speech  “materially and substantially interferes with the requirements of appropriate discipline in the operation of the school.” In other words, if the speech does not constitute a substantial disruption to school operations, it is protected.

Choosing whether or not to have one’s picture taken with a prominent politician certainly represents symbolic political speech. These students’ choice is protected under the First Amendment, but did this choice represent a substantial disruption? Managing 150 students on a busy public street in a major metropolitan area is extremely challenging; was it not disruptive and potentially dangerous for students to choose to separate from the group to avoid this picture? (I’m playing devil’s advocate for a second here…)

On the other hand, if engaging in symbolic speech by taking photos with politicians is part of the trip, does the school not have a responsibility to the students to provide a safe alternative for those who choose not to engage in said speech? In that sense, the students can hardly be blamed for creating the disruption; the disruption only exists because the school failed to provide accommodations for students who did not wish to engage in political speech.

What other aspects of a trip to Washington DC could be considered forced political speech? Would a tour of the White House represent a de facto endorsement of a sitting president? Would a tour of the halls of Congress violate the free speech rights of a group of student anarchists? In that case, how would the school provide an equivalent educational experience for students who opt out? And to what extent would they be obligated to do so?

Ultimately, the students from New Jersey–whether they took the photo or not–walk away with a valuable civics lesson, and none of the thorny questions posed above will probably ever come to pass. That doesn’t mean we can’t have a little fun though.

Two assumptions underlying restorative discipline that need to be challenged

Two assumptions underlying restorative discipline that need to be challenged

In a restorative approach to discipline, offenders are made to see how their actions have negatively impacted others. They work to restore the harm done to those involved, and are less likely to re-offend because of a new understanding of the effect of their actions on others.

For this process to be effective, students must come to empathize with those their actions have harmed. But the assumptions underlying this process merit further examination.

The first assumption is that students are capable of empathizing with those their actions have harmed. But what if this is not universally true? Just as there is a normal variance in academic outcomes amongst a student body, we should acknowledge that there is most likely a normal distribution of the ability to empathize. In other words, some students are capable of extreme empathy, while others might struggle to show even a little bit. Yet, the restorative process treats all students as if they are equally capable of empathy. Those who engage in restorative practices should acknowledge that due to natural variations in empathy, some students may not come to fully understand the damage done by their actions until later in life, if ever. Practitioners should be prepared with alternative practices, and should understand that just because it doesn’t work with everyone doesn’t mean it’s not a valid practice.

The second assumption is that coming to empathize with those one has harmed after committing an offense will make it less likely for one to offend again. The problem with this assumption is that we may be comparing apples and oranges. Take the case of a student who destroyed school property after being involved in a verbal confrontation with a teacher. Sitting in a restorative circle one week later, after the smoke has cleared, with the teacher, principal, and head custodian, that student may be able to clearly see the harm that was done and empathize with the three adults who were affected. But the teenage brain is a fickle organ–when faced with a similar situation two weeks later, there is simply not a lot of evidence to suggest that student may be able to call up the empathy he felt back in that restorative circle and think twice about his actions.

My stance on restorative discipline continues to be one of qualified support. But proponents of the restorative approach need to reckon with some of the big question marks still surrounding the approach if they want to be able to withstand the inevitable backlash coming as restorative discipline sees wider implementation in cities and districts across the country.

Exploring the punishment –> restoration continuum

Exploring the punishment –> restoration continuum

Amstutz and Mullet position the restorative approach to discipline as existing not in opposition to a retributive approach but rather as representing the opposite point on a continuum. While this may seem like a distinction without a difference, I think it’s important to note because while critics of one side or the other often impugn the motives or methods of the other as alien or absurd, in truth the two have more than a little in common.

The authors describe the four approaches on the continuum, starting with the “punishment” approach:

Within the punishment approach, consequences are selected without any meaningful connection between the misbehavior and the punishment, e.g., suspension for stealing sneakers and trashing the locker room.

With this approach, the goal is simply to make the perpetrator suffer in proportion to the suffering caused by his actions. There is no thought given as to whether suspension is the appropriate response, whether suspension will restore the harm done, or whether suspension will make future instances of such behavior less likely. (The question becomes–could a thoughtful person think about this and still conclude suspension was appropriate? More on this in a moment.)

consequences approach seeks to make the punishment fit the crime by inking natural or artificially connected consequences to the crime. This may mean that the student’s consequence is to clean the locker room. These consequences are selected by adults or a peer jury based on a menu of options that are seen as connected to the misbehavior, e.g., the student “corrects” the harm done.

While there is more thought given to the punishment, it is still unclear whether the punishment will restore the harm done or make future instances of the problem behavior less likely. And, as many critics of “natural” consequences have discussed, what’s “natural” isn’t always what’s appropriate, nor is there often even a clear consensus between adults on what constitutes a “natural” consequence in a given situation.

solutions approach sees misbehavior as a problem to be solved. In the case above, the disciplinary procedure would look at why the student was in the locker room and was motivated to vandalize it and steal sneakers. Educators are familiar with a “functional behavior assessment” approach. It seeks to find the function or the purpose of the misbehavior, and then to develop  plan to replace the misbehavior with a positive behavior which meets the needs of the student but without breaking rules. In the stealing example, a disciplinarian might find, after interviewing observers, that the student who stole the shoes was upset because the owner of the shoes was getting more playing time than he was. The plan for change might include a new way to address play-time concerns.

The solutions approach comes at the problem from a “skill vs. will” standpoint. If students become better equipped to address their problems, we can eliminate or replace the behaviors that stem from facing problems they don’t know how to solve. Now, the question on the minds of most educators reading this probably a variant of “That’s it? What’s going to stop him or another kid from doing this again now that they’ve found out there are no consequences?” This is a valid concern that proponents of restorative discipline must become more willing to address. While restorative proponents claim that punishments are not effective deterrents because they don’t address the issue at the heart of the behavior, the truth is the jury is still out on the value of deterrents to change behavior generally. And since we don’t know the extent to which deterrents work, it seems reasonable to keep punishments for serious offenses in place while simultaneously working toward solutions.

There is a scenario in which a student might serve a consequence such as in-school suspension, be made to clean the locker room, and learn a new way to address play-time concerns. The first sends a message (crudely, yes, but it does) to all that the behavior constituted a major violation of community norms, the second begins the process of correcting the harm done, and the third equips the student to better handle the problem in the future.

When using punishment, consequences, and solution modes, adults typically select the plan or consequence without the input of the misbehaving student. Some form of retribution is usually meted out in this process, even if solutions are chosen to address an underlying issue. A restorative approach, however, recognizes the needs and purposes behind the misbehavior, as well as the needs of those who were harmed by the misbehavior. A restorative approach works with all participants to create ways to put things right and make plans for future change. Thus, the focus is on the healing that can occur through a collaborative conferencing process.

Both punishment and consequence modes are based on the hope that unpleasant results or pain will deter misbehavior. The solutions mode holds that solving the presenting problem will deter future misbehavior and provide a more healthy replacement behavior. The restorative discipline mode believes that harmers will choose more respectful options when they come to understand, through dialogue and conversation with those harmed, the pain they have caused by their misbehavior.

In this model, the restorative approach is certainly the loftiest and noblest way to deal with the situation. When executed appropriately, the restorative approach returns the situation to its ideal state, meets the needs of all involved, and prevents future reoccurrences. The rub, of course, is the difficulty level involved in carrying it off well, given how different it is from the approach that most of us grew up with and employ in our own schools.

I believe in the restorative approach in theory–how could you not? But the implementation is where the rubber meets the road. Amstutz and Miller (and others) have perfectly captured the ideals of restorative discipline; what we need now are better roadmaps for actually putting it into practice.

(Another thought, perhaps one for a different post–is the success of the restorative approach related to an individual’s capacity for empathy? If the approach hinges on harmers “choosing more respectful options when they come to understand through dialogue and conversation with those harmed the pain they have caused . . . ,” shouldn’t we acknowledge that the capacity for that kind of empathic understanding is not distributed equally amongst individuals, whether by nature or nurture? If we agree that individuals vary in their ability to feel or display empathy, aren’t we then forced to acknowledge that this approach may not be as successful with those who are [at least currently] less able to exhibit such empathy?)


Where the well-intended Dear Colleague letter went wrong

Where the well-intended Dear Colleague letter went wrong

Since I last wrote about the Obama administration’s Dear Colleague letter, attorney Hans Bader has published an interesting op-ed over at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

Two legal foundations are calling for an end to federal pressure on school districts to adopt racial quotas in suspensions. And rightly so: It is wrong for an agency to pressure regulated entities to adopt racial quotas, or make race-based decisions, even if the pressure does not inexorably lead to a quota.  (See Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod v. FCC, 141 F.3d 344 (D.C. Cir. 1998)). I earlier discussed at length how Obama-era rules, issued without notice and comment in 2014, pressured school districts to adopt racial quotas in suspensions, which violated the Constitution; misinterpreted Title VI of the Civil Rights Act; and ignored judicially-recognized limits on disparate-impact liability.

On March 29, Roger Clegg, president and general counsel of the Center for Equal Opportunity, sent an email to the Justice Department asking the Trump administration to withdraw these rules, which are contained in the Obama administration’s January 8, 2014 letter to America’s schools, known as the “Dear Colleague letter: Racial Disparities In The Administration Of School Discipline.” Clegg urged “the withdrawal of the January 8, 2014 ‘Dear Colleague’ letter,” which was issued by the Obama Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division and the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights. He called this letter “unsound as a matter of both law and policy,” citing “a variety of sources that have criticized the letter, again from both policy and legal perspectives.” Clegg is a former Deputy Assistant Attorney General in the Civil Rights Division, where he served from 1987-1991.

Like Kirsanow, Bader argues that even if the DOE does not explicitly call for a racial quota, it still may not pressure regulated entities to create what would essentially become racial quotas. I think that the Obama administration’s heart was in the right place, so to speak, when they issued the Dear Colleague letter. I think the letter seeks to address an undeniably real issue; I also think they would be derelict if they did not do something to address the issue.

But the more I turn it over, I simply don’t think path they chose was the right (or Constitutionally sound) one. The Department must envision for itself a higher role than simply demanding that schools bring disciplinary statistics in line with a school’s demographics. If you were overseeing a school in which black students comprised 50% of the population but accounted for 75% of suspensions in 2016, and in the following year suspensions for black students had fallen to 50%, would you be satisfied with that result? I wouldn’t. In fact, I’d be extremely concerned about what had to have been done to achieve that stat. I’d have questions about the legitimacy of the number, and if the number was “legitimate,” I’d have questions about why the solution, if it was truly as easy as the numbers suggest, hadn’t been applied earlier.

Fundamentally, I think this comes back to the general worldview of the Department of Education under Duncan and King regarding why schools aren’t improving. Duncan’s record suggests he believed schools didn’t do better because school leaders were not sufficiently afraid of the consequences of not doing so. Therefore, in order to fix the disparate impact of disciplinary policies, the Department could simply threaten regulatory action if the problem doesn’t get better. But those who work on the ground know that schools would solve their problems if they could solve their problems. If schools had the tools to remedy the disparate impact of their disciplinary policies, wouldn’t they have done it already? The solution then, rather than to threaten, is to seek a better understanding of the problem and better equip schools to solve it.

Will good intentions cause a racial quota system in school discipline?

The National Review is generally not the place I go to for insightful articles about school discipline. But Peter Kirsanow’s recent editorial on the Obama administration’s Dear Colleague Letter on nondiscriminatory school discipline policies got my attention this week.

Some background: The DOE’s letter argues that although school discipline policies are not prima facie discriminatory, their disparate impact on black and Hispanic students (a very real phenomenon) suggests a discriminatory effect.

Kirsanow argues that the consequence of addressing the disparate impact will in effect be a racial quota system. This is not an unreasonable conclusion to draw: if we are only focused on outputs (the number of students suspended of each race) and only measure success by our ability to bring per capita suspensions for each race into alignment, then we may indeed be encouraging schools to simply suspend fewer black and Hispanic students to avoid regulatory punishments.

I’m certainly in no position to question Kirsanow’s bona fides on civil rights issues, but I do find this to be a fairly cynical and circumscribed take. At no point has the DOE said that we should only focus on metrics; that would be preposterous. Every serious person knows that the ultimate goal should be student learning; we seek to curb discipline problems because they prevent students from achieving success in school, not because we want our numbers to look better.

I think the DOE is enlightened enough to realize this. The danger, though, is that schools for whom restorative-type policies aren’t working may resort to an old-fashioned juking of the stats rather than face the wrath of regulators who look only at the bottom line.

While I agree that the disparate impact is troubling and have no doubt that in some or many cases it may be the result of discrimination, the issue is simply too complex to solve by looking at one stat alone.


Combating emotional contagion, part two

Combating emotional contagion, part two

In my last post I wrote about the way in which our own anxieties can will into being the very behaviors we most dread in our students, through the process of emotional contagion.

In their book How to Talk So Little Kids Can Listen, Joanna Faber and Julie King write, “The point is that we can’t behave right when we don’t feel right. And kids can’t behave right when they don’t feel right. If we don’t take care of their feelings first, we have little chance of engaging their cooperation. All we’ll have left going for us is our ability to use greater force.”

The authors are talking about addressing kids’ feelings first before addressing their behavior. But once we understand the concept of emotional contagion, we also understand that addressing our own emotions and anxieties is equally important.

How do we do that?

There is no one universal fix, unfortunately. Each of us has our own “triggers” in the classroom, the situations that bring our anxieties to the surface. But in thinking about my own experiences and the experiences of teachers I’ve known and worked with, here are a couple of tips:

  1. Overplan. Novice teachers often have an understandably tenuous grip on classroom management. With a solid, engaging lesson, they can make it through, but the idea of unstructured time can set their hearts racing. By building extensions and challenges into the end of a lesson, you can eliminate the possibility of finishing a lesson too early. But make sure that if you’re adding, you’re adding on to the end, not the beginning or middle; fear of not finishing a lesson can be just as anxiety-provoking, and when students sense you’re rushing, they may become tense and agitated.
  2. Plan for struggles. little bit of frustration in a well-designed task can be productive; a task that asks for more than students can currently handle without the proper supports can lead to chaos in the classroom. Teachers feel like they are putting out fires as they address the same difficulty over and over with different students. Instead, think about any area where a student might struggle and create a pre-made resource that addresses it. When a student raises their hand and says, “I don’t get ____,” you can say, “Grab one of the blue slips from the center of the table.” Explain beforehand what resources are available for struggling students. You will now be able to relax knowing you have your bases covered and be more present for students who might genuinely need to work with you one on one.
  3. Have a system, stick to the system. Write down the top three (or five, or ten…) things that frustrate or annoy you (e.g., how students enter the room, students who call out, bathroom requests during a mini-lesson, etc.). Create a system or policy for each, and over time teach and stick to the system. Students will learn the systems and when they forget, you can use a simple cue to the remind them. Note: when creating your systems, choose the option that gives the students the most autonomy possible while still remaining appropriate or acceptable to you. Contrary to what you might think, students will not feel they are being “micro-managed”; in fact, they will prefer organized and clear expectations, as long as the systems are not overly restrictive and are age-appropriate.