It is Teachers’ and Parents’ Responsibility to Engage Cooperation Rather than Focus on Exerting External Control
America has been gripped recently (Oct 26th/2015) by a terrible video taken by a student in a high school algebra classroom in South Carolina in which a police resource officer had been called in to help discipline a student who had refused to stop using her cellphone in class. In the video, the police officer is seen dragging the student in her desk across the floor, then throwing her on the floor in a most violent fashion, in front of the rest of the class. It is traumatic even to watch the video, and it says a great deal about what is wrong with our society currently.
I feel compelled to speak out about this. The good news is that the school district did take responsibility once the video went viral, and the police officer was fired from his job. The terrible news is that it is still the case that many school districts around the country are increasingly turning to the police to take part in discipline matters that for hundreds of years have been handled by teachers and administrators within school settings.
In light of the spate of violent incidents at schools around the country over the past ten to fifteen years, it is understandable that school administrators may feel the need to have some kind of police presence in order to provide security and keep students safe.
A case can be made for providing this kind of potential protection. However, the mistake that is being made, and a tragic one it is, is that such security officers are increasingly being called upon to manage discipline issues in the classroom that should be handled by teachers.
In this example, the girl in question was not being violent, was not causing a scene, was not hurting or threatening anyone. She simply took out her cellphone in class and evidently did not respond to the teacher’s request that she put it away. It is essential that teachers develop classroom management skills that will enable them to handle typical misbehaviors and disobedience by children without escalating such situations into criminal events.
I have been focusing for some time in my work with parents and teachers of young children on the importance of being strategic in one’s interactions, and working on interacting with children in ways that engage cooperation rather than exert external control. Of course there are times when some kind of control is necessary...breaking up a physical fight, for example.
But in many cases, situations of typical misbehavior or lack of compliance on the part of students, behaviors that are normal and expectable for children at many stages of development, are escalated by the adults’ responses into disastrous and potentially traumatizing experiences.
I have thought a great deal about other options that this teacher could have chosen to deal with this non compliant student. If he were focusing on engaging cooperation rather than exerting external control, which in many cases simply leads to more defiance, he might have said to the student, “You know, it would be a really wise choice for you to put away your cellphone and turn to p. 52 in the Algebra book, because the equations we’re going to be solving today in class are going to blow your mind and I know you don’t want to miss the opportunity to be a scholar!” Using a little humor, and de-escalating the situation is what is called for in most cases.
If the student did not put away her cellphone, the teacher could simply move on with class, and comment to the rest of the students that he appreciates their focus and let them know how clever they are going to feel after they master the lesson of the day. Then later, towards the end of class, he can come back to her individually. He might talk with her about how they can come to an agreement about handling the cellphone... working with her to solve a problem (her inability to let go of the cellphone) rather than looking at her behavior as strictly a matter of defiance that must be quashed, is bound to be more successful and lead to a much better outcome.
A frequent phrase that parents use with children is, “If you don’t stop doing ..., you’ll have to go to your room,” or some other threat of what will happen if the child doesn’t stop misbehaving. A better approach, and one that is much more likely to engage cooperation, is to say instead, “I’d really like for you to be able to stay here with us (or be a scholar in class today), so if you can use gentle hands (or kind words, or open your book, as the case may be), I’d love to have you stay.” Threatening children is rarely successful, because they often feel the need to check out whether you mean the threat or not. So if the adult wants to modify the child’s behavior, focusing on the positive option is much more likely to be successful.
My daughter teaches English to high school seniors in a low income community in Los Angeles, where many of the students face significant challenges in their lives on a daily basis. As a result, many are unmotivated about school and don’t see themselves as having the potential to succeed, so they act like they don’t care. Yet she has developed a myriad of strategies and approaches to engage them in the learning process, and none of them are based on punishment. She works hard to develop personal connections with her students, and they want her to think well of them. This is not to say that she doesn’t occasionally have to set limits, because of course she does. Sometimes she has to ask a student to leave the classroom for a little break out in the hall to calm down and refocus...but on the rare occasion when she does this, the students cooperate because they know she respects them and cares about them even when they are upset.
Understanding that the key to teaching students respect is to behave respectfully towards them is something that gets lost too often in our society, where we at times tend to view teenagers as potential criminals, or wild creatures who must be treated roughly in order to tame them. This approach ignores the power of interpersonal connection, which is so critical to successful teaching.
As parents, we too must do our best to interact in a respectful way with our children, even when providing discipline is necessary. Offering a child a choice between changing his/her behavior towards the positive in order to remain with the family is so much better than threatening the child with being sent to his/her room. Occasionally, a child may need to go to his/her room to settle down, and that can be a good thing. But whenever possible, finding ways to resolve conflicts without punishment is better.