Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Second (and Third and Fourth and...) Chances

This post by Jay Mathews had me thinking about classroom management and discipline today. You should click over and read the whole column, but in case you don't, Greene and the commenters there ponder whether or not students should lose major privileges, like a year-end trip, as a consequence for (I assume) flagrant and repeated bad behavior.

A couple of years ago, I had two very difficult students in one of my classes. They were difficult in most of the same ways: severely disruptive, rude, disrespectful, and generally out of control. I was a youngster back then and my classroom management was, I'll be honest, lacking. But at the same time, I knew that other teachers in the school had also had a hard time with them.

We had planned a year-end trip for the kids, and my co-teacher and I were worried about taking these two students. We asked our principal if we could write into the permission slip that if a student was suspended, they couldn't go on the trip. Both Frick and Frack were one more infraction away from being suspended, so we figured that this would serve either as an incentive for them to straighten up and fly right or as a warning that we were serious about taking the trip away from them, or possibly both. Our principal agreed.

Frick and Frack both got themselves suspended. And we had them removed from the trip.

Here's where the story changes.

Frick remained his surly, unmanageable self for the rest of the year, earning himself a second suspension. But Frack changed. He was truly disappointed that he missed the trip and begged to be allowed to go to the senior dance. Our principal said that if he stayed out of trouble between the trip and the dance, he could go. Well, Frack was an angel for those three weeks. He came to the dance on his very best behavior and conducted himself with dignity during graduation.

What did I learn from this experience? A few things:

1.) If you're going to threaten to take something away from a kid, be sure it's yours to take. Make sure your supervisor is going to back you up.

2.) Whatever you're going to take has to be meaningful. Frick obviously didn't care about being excluded from the trip. But Frack did.

3.) Remember that if you're taking away something like a kid's recess time, you may well be punishing yourself. It happens, and sometimes it's appropriate (unfortunately for you), but plan for it.

4.) Most importantly, if you're going to take something away, I think that you're more likely to see behavior change if the kid still has a chance to redeem him/herself. Can you take one thing away but leave the door open for something else? Can you work on a plan with the kid to help him/her "earn" the privilege back? I've seen that work with my classes quite a bit. And if you can mess with the kid or the class for a little while before you offer them the path to redemption, it works even better. Let them think it's gone forever for a short time.

Taking stuff away from kids is no fun. Even for your most nightmarish students, I bet you'll feel a little sad when you do it. But, done properly, it sends a serious message about behavioral expectations and teaches kids a real lesson. And, hey, you might just have a Frack in your class for whom finally experiencing real consequences actually has the intended effect.

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