For a long time I have wondered why Positive Discipline is more successful in some classrooms than others, why do some teachers and schools embrace it and others reject it. Why do systems based on rewards (and punishment) thrive?
Actually, let me say this differently. Why do I embrace Positive Discipline and at other times reject it? Why do I resort to things that look like punishment with students and why do I consider rewards when I feel really stuck?
For those of you that don’t know me, I am a parent of two children in their teens and also a school teacher with 25 first and second graders.
Personally I really don’t like feeling out of control. I care about what others think about me. As a result I really don’t like to be seen as someone who doesn’t know what they are doing. Of course since I work hard, much of what I do goes pretty well. But when things don’t go well or as predicted I can get pretty uncomfortable and that is when I notice myself responding to others in a way that is less respectful and trusting and more controlling.
Here is an example:
For the first six weeks of the school year, my class and I create and practice the Daily Five Language Arts routines so that students can work independently while my aide and I have reading groups. We practice these routines, reflect on how we are doing and brainstorm what we need in order to do better. By mid-October we are able to work for up to 30 minutes with students working independently while I do reading groups. Of course things do not go perfectly… sometimes students will talk instead of work, distract others instead of doing their own work. At those times I can feel the knot in my stomach growing…. and if my principal were to walk in and see this (ugh) and so I interrupt my reading group to redirect these students, and or tell them that we need to meet at recess….. or glare and growl at them to get back to work….. Meanwhile my reading group is stuck waiting, then they can start talking and the situation can spiral.
At times like these I have really gotten locked into my fearful thinking and behaved in a manner that actually undermines my students ability to develop self control. Why? because I stepped in and reminded them. When students are not doing what they need to do, there is something that needs to be figured out, but my jumping in the way I do might give me some immediate relief but won’t really help them in the long run. Again my point here is to focus on how my thoughts and feelings in that moment and how they effect what I do. In my discomfort I jump to control.
One day after a particularly difficult session I called the class to the carpet to reflect on how our work time had gone. I was feeling frustration and annoyance at having not been able to teach my reading group. When I asked the class for their ideas on what would help us do better, students suggested that I remind them to go back on task! I told them that I needed them to remind themselves so I could teach my reading groups…. I needed them to control their own behavior…. And then it occurred to me to ask.:
“For how many of you is controlling yourself something new that you are just learning?” A THIRD OF MY CLASS RAISED THEIR HANDS!
And in that moment my whole thinking completely shifted. I remembered that they were little and just learning… and this opened the door to understanding that they were people and together we were learning how to work together as a class. I felt a wave of compassion and patience well up in me. I understood that this type of work and learning does not happen overnight. I didn’t feel annoyed or frustrated or scared about what others would think…. I felt like taking up our work again of truly figuring out what was needed for us to do better.
I remembered insights I had gained from problem solving with individual students about why they struggled during work time. They didn’t have books at their new reading level, they got stuck on a work that they didn’t know how to spell, they were having a hard time at home and just really needed a friend, they didn’t know what to write Or they had finished what they had set out to do and didn’t know what to do next. Punishment, rewards and growling and scowling at them wouldn’t fix any of these problems…. I have to ask myself, “How much better would my class do as a group if I/we worked to fix these problems?”
When things don’t go the way I planned and I get that knot in my stomach I often resort to control and reminding… its no wonder that my students have to come to expect reminders… I think I could do better if I worked on having greater tolerance of feeling out of control. If I could resist the temptation to react and instead refocus myself.
Next week I plan to teach reading groups with my back to my class, so I am focusing on my small group instead of what the class is doing. For some people this may sound crazy… turn my back? Won’t things really go nuts then?
But if I don’t give them chances to manage themselves how will they learn? How will they learn self control if I don’t give them chances to wrestle with it If things are not working I can always stop the work time and we can brainstorm what we need to do together. That is fundamentally different than my jumping away from my reading group to put out fires. This approach requires me to develop a tolerance for the feelings that are stirred up in me when things don’t go well and choose respectful ways of working on solutions. Turning my back won’t be the only thing that I do. I will continue to work on providing the materials and necessary support that students need – the right books in their book boxes etc.
Positive Discipline has helped me develop a practice of looking more deeply at behavior, my own especially. Often while preparing to teach a PDC I have wondered what is most essential to share with other teachers. Today I really see the great value of building tolerance for the discomfort we feel when things don’t go as planned and resisting the urge to control. I am grateful that Top Card is one of the activities that we do!
Happy New Year to all of you!
1st/2nd grade teacher
Santa Cruz, California
Santa Cruz, California