Julia Steiny: Punishment is Not Discipline


By Julia Steiny

Recently Eva Moskowitz took to the Wall Street Journal to blast New York Mayor Bill de Blasio for promoting what she calls “lax discipline” in City schools.  Her op-ed outright sneers at his efforts to expand disciplinary strategies beyond suspension.  As the founder of the Success Academies, famous for their high test scores and strict, traditional discipline, Moskowitz clearly feels she has the cred to malign discipline alternatives.

The problem is that she, along with so many others, confuse discipline with punishment and kicking kids out.  Discipline means to teach.  Yes, as a culture we’ve lost our compassion for children and developed zero tolerance for truly bad or even misguided behavior.  Suspensions teach intolerance of the behavior.  But where’s the lesson on how to behave cooperatively?  The practice sessions?  Is mere compliance good enough?

Moskowitz writes, “Suspensions convey the critical message to students and parents that certain behavior is inconsistent with being a member of the school community. Pretend suspensions, in which a student is allowed to remain in the school community, do not convey that message.”  The message is: you, Kid, are not welcome in our community.

Punitive methods ignore problems at the root of the behavior.

Punishing kids — yelling, berating, suspending — can teach some kids fear-driven compliance.  Certain kids become cowed into submission, which is convenient to authority figures, but disheartening.  Others temporarily stuff their desire to rebel and explode later on.  Still others get a whole lot worse right away.  Misbehavior often flags that the kid’s in trouble, so yelling at her misses an opportunity.  If Mom’s getting hit, or there’s no food in the house, Success Academies leave it to the kid to figure things out while hanging by the TV during a suspension.

Moskowitz writes: “Proponents of lax discipline claim it would benefit minority students, who are suspended at higher rates than their white peers. But minority students are also the most likely to suffer the adverse consequences of lax discipline—that is, their education is disrupted by a chaotic school environment or by violence.”

Agreed, disruptive behavior is a scourge on the schools.  It’s bad, getting worse and should not be tolerated.  But so much of it is learned and comes from home.  In order to avoid conflict, many parents don’t enforce bedtimes, homework, or chores.  Putting limits on violent video games?  As one parent told me, “I don’t roll that way.  He’d be so mad.”  So some kids come to school this side of feral, used to getting their way.  No question: something bold must be done.

Sometimes the only functional adults in a kid’s life are at school.

As research has argued for years, all kids, but especially “bad” kids, need to develop terrific relationships with caring adults.  Suspensions are fast and easy while creating relationships is time-consuming, labor-intensive, and therefore expensive.  Enforcing rules doesn’t require relationships; cooperation does.  Only the tugboat of a caring relationship can turn the Titanic of bad behavior.  Learning how to work well with others in a community setting is a critical skill for the low-income, minority children whom Moskowitz claims to hold dear to her heart.

In spite of the harsh stories about “no excuses” discipline, flocks of parents try to get their kids into such schools.  Last year Success Academies saw 20,000 applications for 2,688 seats in its 22 schools.  The test scores are attractive, but likely many parents are also hoping someone else will figure out how to teach their kids the discipline that they didn’t learn at home.   Success suspended 11% of their students last year, whereas the New York City public schools, where most Academies are located, suspended 4%.  Kick ‘em out; teach ‘em a lesson in intolerance.

Among the “lax discipline” techniques recommended by the Mayor are restorative practices.  Moskowitz says, “[Traditional] discipline also helps prepare students for the real world. In that world, when you assault your co-worker or curse out your boss, you don’t get a ‘restorative circle,’ you get fired.”  This is true.  But in the working world you’re an adult, not a kid.

What’s really lax is the ease of beating on a kid to get his compliance.  I marvel that few have a problem with “no excuses” schools being so proud of teaching compliance to children of color.  I see a this as a moral issue, given that middle class kids are more often coaxed into cooperation.  All kids need to learn to do the right thing because they see how it benefits them, and not just because it avoids emotional pain.

Sadly, building restorative relationships takes time.  And time costs money no one feels the taxpayer can afford.  Interestingly, the end result of bad discipline strategies — from harsh to neglectful — are prisons stuffed with high school drop outs.  Somehow we have no problem with finding tons of money for prisons.

Julia Steiny
Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist writing about kids and schools through the lens of Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. Currently she is Project Manager for a National Institute of Justice grant to study the effectiveness of restorative conferencing programs now being implemented in six Rhode Island Schools. Steiny is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, the design partner in the grant. After serving a term on the Providence School Board, for 16 years she wrote the Providence Journal's weekly education column. Since 1998, she has consulted with The Providence Plan on data analysis and communications, helping to develop Information Works! for the RI Department of Education and the RIDataHUB. For more, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at juliasteiny@youthrestorationproject.org. The Youth Restoration Project has a Facebook page with news and resources on the Restoration movement in the US and internationally.
Julia Steiny