I got a chance to start Fisher, Frey, and Smith’s Better than Carrots or Sticks: Restorative Practices for Positive Classroom Management today and was intrigued by the way in which the authors position the interaction between adult-student relationships and maladaptive school behaviors.

For the authors, healthy relationships are crucial for the success of restorative discipline practices; at the same time, though, the authors say that rewards and consequences (i.e., “carrots and sticks”) don’t work because they don’t teach.

But couldn’t the same be said for relationships?

Here are some of the key excerpts:

We finally came across a definition [of classroom management] we could stand behind … “building relationships with students and teaching social skills along with academic skills.”

There are two aspects of an effective learning environment … relationships and high-quality instruction.

When students have strong, trusting relationships both with the adults in the school and with their peers … it’s harder for them to misbehave.

Students are going to misbehave as they learn and grow–it’s how we respond to that misbehavior that counts.

Restorative practices are predicated on the positive relationships that students and adults have with one another. Simply said, it’s harder for students to act defiantly or disrespectfully toward adults who care about them and their future.

But there’s one problem [with reward and consequences]: rewards and consequences don’t work–or at least, they don’t teach. They may result in short-term changes, but in reality they promote compliance and little else.

First, let me say that I agree with everything the authors have laid out here. And I acknowledge fully that strong, trusting relationships between adults and students in schools reduce maladaptive or unproductive behaviors (i.e., “misbehavior”). Given the choice between an exclusively carrot-and-stick approach and an exclusively relationship-based approach, I would choose the relationship-based approach every time.

That being said, if the criteria for a good discipline system is that it “teaches” and “promotes more than compliance,” is a relationship-based approach actually better?

To understand this, I think we need to understand more about how the relationship mechanism works. For example, if Student A doesn’t misbehave in Teacher X’s class because Student A and Teacher X have a strong relationship built on mutual care and trust, what is actually happening here? When Student A is faced with a challenging situation and is faced with a choice to either “behave” or “misbehave,” we know he will probably make the choice to behave if he is in Teacher X’s class, based on their relationship. But why? Is the student thinking “I shouldn’t misbehave because I don’t want to disappoint Ms. X. She cares about me and I don’t want to make her upset”? Or is it “I won’t misbehave because this teacher actually knows who I am and cares enough that she would definitely do something about it”?

Now, we might say that as long as the outcome is a positive one, who cares about the thought process? But to say that is to value outcomes over processes much in the same way that a carrot-and-stick approach does. If anything, it almost seems worse because when students behave appropriately only because of their relationship with their teacher, the primary driver seems to be the potential for guilt or disappointing someone they care about. I’m not sure any of us would say that we want those emotions to be the driving force in students’ behavior.

And what happens when the student switches classes and goes to the class of Teacher Y, with whom they don’t have as good of a relationship? Yes, we can (and should) fault Teacher Y for not building strong relationships with students, but we should also fault the system that relies on relationships and therefore is only as effective as the relationship between the student and the teacher he’s currently with.

So, a school discipline plan that’s predicated on strong adult-child relationships only seems problematic.

Ah, but you say that I am misreading Fisher, Frey, and Smith, because they do not focus exclusively on relationships between students and teachers but also on building students’ social and emotional skills. But now we are getting into a different area altogether–if we build our school discipline program on the concept of reducing misbehavior by teaching kids important skills (see previous posts on Greene’s Lost at School), than we are saying in effect that students misbehave because they lack key social and emotional skills.

Now, if we believe that students misbehave because they lack key social and emotional skills and not because they choose to misbehave (Greene refers to this as “students do well when they can” vs. “students do well when they want”), then I am left to wonder why relationships with adults matter at all (although I know deep down that they do).

For example, if Students A, B, and C work productively as a group with Teacher X, we would assume that they have learned the skill of working collaboratively with peers. But when they enter the room of Teacher Y, who is adversarial and rude toward students and who does not care a bit about building relationships with students, they argue and show little interest in doing any of the group work. So where did the skill go? You would assume if you possess a skill, you can carry it out even when you don’t like the person–and yet we know this often isn’t the case.

So what really is the relationship between relationships, skills, and school discipline?




One thought on “Relationships improve school discipline–but why?

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