Anyone considering a shift to a new way of thinking about or implementing discipline within a school has to consider the fact that without the support of those implementing the new approach (i.e., teachers and other staff members), an initiative is almost destined to fail.

Most of us right now can close our eyes and picture one or even a handful of members of our staff who might be resistant to a shift toward more restorative discipline practices. Lest you think I am blaming teachers for being resistant to change and avoidant of new ideas, let me say that I fully empathize with teachers who are skeptical of new initiatives and wary of change. Teachers’ jobs are so incredibly difficult already that even when things aren’t working perfectly, there is still a sense of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” though perhaps the thinking is more like “if it ain’t a total catastrophe, we have bigger fish to fry.” The poor historical record of initiative implementation in schools has led to an “initiative fatigue” that is, I believe, fully justified.

Nonetheless, potential resistance to a shift to new ways of thinking about discipline is not a valid reason to avoid implementing a new model if you truly believe the new model is what’s best for kids.

The authors of The School Leader’s Guide to Restorative School Discipline have laid out some possible ripostes to common objections to restorative practices (adopted from Greene’s Lost at School). These are the five I believe would be most common:

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  • He does that to get attention

Questions

  • But isn’t it okay for a child to want attention? Is he getting attention when he is doing something positive? Doesn’t the child know what to do to get attention in positive ways?

First, let me say that I appreciate that the responses are laid out as questions. The goal is not to shut down the staff member with “superior” knowledge of “the right way” to do things or “the answer.” That won’t work.

This first example is probably the most common. It reframes the conversation around the idea that “getting attention” isn’t necessarily a bad thing, that we shouldn’t vilify the child who is “trying to get attention” but rather take a step back and look at what we might do to help the child get attention in productive ways, acknowledging the fact that this might be a skill problem rather than a will problem.

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  • He’s being manipulative

Questions

  • Does this child really have the skills to be manipulative intentionally?
  • If he is pushing my buttons, is this really his fault or is it because I’m not controlling my behavior as the adult?

 This is a tough one. Most educators would agree that it sometimes does really seem that kids figure out what our “buttons” are and decide to push them. But the question I would ask is: let’s say Student A does figure out what your “buttons” are, what does it say about your relationship with this student that she decides to push them? What are the antecedents to this “button pushing,” which certainly seems like a type of revenge. If this student knows what your “buttons” are, then it’s likely that other students know too, but of course not all students are deciding to “push” them. Why is that?

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  • She behaves that way because she’s mentally ill, because she has ADHD, etc.

Questions

  • Does repeating the child’s disability label really explain this particular incident?
  • How can we build on her strengths rather than emphasize what’s wrong?

I’m conflicted on this one. If a student does have a disability, this does seem like a logical starting point for the conversation. For example, if the maladaptive behavior the student is engaging in (e.g., tantruming, withdrawl) is consistent with their diagnosis of autism, then it makes sense to treat the maladaptive behavior as a symptom of the disability and use common tools for working with autistic students to work on the problem.

But I suppose what the authors are cautioning against is the idea of “excusing” the behavior or refusing to address the behavior based on the idea that since it springs from the disability, it is an unchangeable behavior and cannot be addressed through the type of skill-building that more commonly works with general-education students. Certainly, skill-building with students with disabilities might take longer and require more patience, but it is possible and should always be considered the first option.

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One thought on “Three Ways to Rethink “Negative” Conversations about Kids with Challenging Behavior

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