For the last few years, Chicago Public Schools has been working hard to change its discipline policies and practices to reduce suspensions and expulsions. Instead, the district is encouraging principals and teachers to use restorative justice practices such as peace circles, conversations to restore relationships and formal letters of apology to repair harm and restore community.
This shift is essential. Previous practices created a decision tree of consequences based solely on the offense, without considering the real needs of the student who misbehaved. If we can differentiate instruction based on where students are and what they need to learn, shouldn’t we differentiate discipline in the same way?
Over the course of my teaching career on Chicago’s South Side, I have too often seen traditional discipline used repetitively without affecting change. No one learns or grows from a suspension or detention. No harm is truly repaired.
These kinds of exclusionary practices hurt everyone in the school community. I have learned from experience that in order to help our most challenging students experience real change, we adults must extend ourselves and our thinking to create opportunities for them to reflect and grow from their actions.
Creative Growth Opportunities
This was my challenge with David, then a sixth-grader I had worked with for several years. He frequently finds himself in trouble, and punitive practices like suspension haven’t made any difference to him.
Last fall, David ignored redirection and argued with a peer to the point of disrupting his class. When David and his classmate became so heated they left their seats, security was called to de-escalate the conflict, delaying his classmates’ transition to lunch and recess.
When David was brought to me, I took time to hear his story and to think about how to turn this incident into a learning opportunity he would remember. I thought David might benefit from experiencing the kinds of difficulties teachers face when students ignore their directions and disrupt school routines.
I charged David with running kindergarten recess for a week. We would meet daily to reflect on his experience. Throughout the week he would be supported by the adult supervisor for kindergarten lunch and recess. My hope was this experience would give him some perspective on why it’s important for students to heed redirection.
‘Mr. Beavers, They Don’t Listen!’
On his first day, David’s job was to line up the kindergartners in two parallel lines. By late fall, they were well-practiced with the routine. Yet when David stood before the group and gave his instructions, he watched as the 5-year-olds descended into chaos. He repeated himself, to no effect, and after a third failed attempt his supervisor stepped in and helped organize the group so they could proceed outside. The return back from recess was more successful, but still required adult support.
After the kindergartners were back in the cafeteria, seated and eating lunch, we met to discuss his experience.
“How’d it go?” I asked.
David looked away, took a deep breath, and said, in exasperation, “Mr. Beavers, they don’t listen!”
I chuckled. “Does that remind you of anyone?”
He tapped his palm to his chest and said, “Me.”
“Why do you think I gave you this responsibility?” I asked him.
“Because I wasn’t listening.”
“How does it feel when someone is not listening to you?”
“It made me feel bad, weak, like I wasn’t important,” he answered. “I was just trying to help them to recess.”
“Interesting. Now, how do you think your teacher felt when you did not listen to her?”
“The same,” he said. “I wasn’t trying to make her feel like that.”
I replied, “If you made her feel that way, does what you intended to do matter?” I asked him to reflect on that.
For the rest of the week, David continued to struggle with his recess group. Since then, though his behavior has improved, he still has room to grow. This exercise was never intended to be a silver bullet, but it did plant a seed from which David can grow. We now have weekly conversations about empathy, because that is what he needs.
In those conversations, David talks about his feelings, the feelings of others and how he can use his knowledge about feelings to make choices in his behavior. Traditional practices would never have yielded this level of self-reflection, and that is why we have to differentiate discipline based on the student, not on the offense.