Julia Steiny: Winning the Discipline Wars Takes Restoration

(Photo: Youtube, Creative Commons)

(Photo: Youtube, Creative Commons)

By Julia Steiny

In Fordham Institute’s weekly Flypaper blog, David Griffith offers a tantalizing hope in a piece called “How to end the discipline wars.”  He asks, “Is there a more annoying manifestation of our political and cultural divisions than the debate over school discipline?”  Good question.

He outlines what he and I both find to be a weirdly polarized, even adversarial, set of attitudes towards discipline.  And he says he has a sensible resolution.  I read on with relish.

To understand the “war,” understand its combatants.  On one hand are the schools whose priority is the sanctity of student learning.  Not unreasonable.  Students who are on task deserve to be free of disruptions by miscreants who are not.  So, these “no excuses” schools are unrepentant about responding to misbehavior with strong negative reinforcement, including suspension, expulsion and a variety of punishments.  Their techniques include shaming, such as posting students’ names in yellow for those on disciplinary warning and red for those who will be punished.  Many parents appreciate the strict orderliness of schools.

On the other hand, Griffith points out, is the growing restorative practices/justice movement, which works to get to the root of the misbehavior.  Is the kid signaling that she’s got issues at home or mental-health problems that need addressing?  Is his incessant swearing learned in a home that swears constantly?  Or is it willful rottenness?  The consequences needs to respond to the reason for the misbehavior.  The if/then legalism of traditional discipline systems have prescribed punishment for each infraction – but it fails to teach, heal or solve problems.  How can the misbehavior be prevented from happening again unless we know what triggered it?

Because of its focus on healing, teaching, and cooperation, restoration is more work on the front end.  The if/then approach wins only short-term compliance at best.  At worst, it can cause resentment and disengagement.

Griffith’s solution to punishment is to create “alternative learning settings.”

Oy.  So, the solution is to sequester the “bad kids” where they won’t disrupt the so-called “good kids.”  Griffith admits that this is not a radically new idea.  True.  Education as an industry often gets rid of the unwanted kids by creating separate “programs targeted to their needs.”

Spin it all you want, but ostracism is punishment, plain and simple.  And the programs I’ve seen look for all the world like prison prep.  Still, Griffith says, “I think it’s time for a broader and more honest conversation about alternatives to suspension that honor the majority’s right to an education.”

Ah, but herewith lies the rub:

Define the line between the good and the bad kids.

On a given day, school staff can point out those kids who are doing what they should and those who aren’t.  The distinction is clear.  But it’s a snapshot in a kid’s life.  Years ago one of my kids’ friends was a goody-two-shoes girl — who soured overnight.  When her parents told her they were getting divorced, she acted out.  Her behavior became atrocious; her manner rude; her grades slipped; she ran from class and she ran from home.  She was a serious pain to get back on track.

But Griffith’s solution for her schooling would have been to give her an “alternative learning setting.”  She would have been with the other disruptive kids to protect students whose rights to an education she was, in fact, violating sometimes.  This would have made her situation far worse.

Now imagine seriously traumatized kids whose emotional wounds are far deeper than hers were.  “Alternative placements” block any chance of them learning community-appropriate behavior from the kids who can model cooperating with others.  And forgive me, but “sequestering” is another word for “segregation.”  The violent kid living with a violent father does not need to be segregated with other kids who might also be super angry.  It’s convenient for the adults, but it’s not good for the kid.

Don’t kick them out, lean in with them.

Setting up programs to manage kids outside of their regular classrooms is expensive.  And ineffective.  And who wants to be such a group’s teacher?  An actually new idea would be to spend those same big bucks, but effectively, on specialists — specifically, restorative specialists.  These trained workers would accompany the disruptive kid to class for as long as necessary.  They would teach, model and support desirable behavior, but also prevent her from disrupting teaching and learning.

Kicking the kid out doesn’t really hold the kid accountable or teach him anything.  Most kids who have the mental capacity would work on acquiring social skills if only to shake what feels like a babysitter.  Those seriously challenged with meeting expectations will have a tutor.  In both cases, the help should be as temporary as possible.

By all means, make sure all kids have the fullest possible opportunity to learn and thrive — including “bad” kids.  Teaching them to manage their own behavior is the biggest favor we can do for them and us.

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