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What About Discipline? Case #1

In my last article, I encouraged teachers to ACT instead of REACT. In fact, in several of my most recent articles, I heavily stressed the need to identify possible causes or triggers of behavior in order to help prevent or minimize disruptive behaviors. However, as a teacher, I also know that there are practicality issues involved (i.e. time and extra adult support). There is also the question that often accompanies the emotional-literacy form of guiding behaviors, and that is “What about discipline?”

Discipline has become such a hot-button topic in our society, and there are so many experts on different philosophies and/or extremes of guiding behaviors that it can make knowing which method to try seem daunting. While I have discussed examining “What’s the Harm?,” I am not, and never have been, against discipline. I practice first and foremost forming a relationship, and then draw upon a combination of methods for discipline.

I do want to stress that this article is not a guide for choosing one method over another. I am definitely not an expert. Instead, over the next two months, I am going to draw on my own experiences in the trenches and relay a few lessons I have learned through working with two very special students.

The first year I had Alexa in my class, it was hard – very hard. There were two teachers supporting fourteen students, a few with different specialized needs. Alexa was probably one of the sweetest students I had ever met. But she had difficulty following directions. She would actively run around the classroom, scream, hit, and kick out at others when upset, and even try to break away from the group on classroom outings.

Part of the time, she reacted the way she did because she thought doing so made it a fun game. Part of the time, she was frustrated, upset, or over-stimulated. By my second year with her, I had tried several ways to reach her, and her behavior and responses had drastically improved. However, it took several mistakes on my part before I was able to truly understand her and get her to understand herself.

Mistake: When I first began working with Alexa, I often reacted to the different situations as they occurred. While I felt that there were underlying causes, I focused on the immediate behaviors. I felt it was quicker to respond to the immediate rather than take time to figure out the cause, or I assumed the cause and created consequences based on my assumptions.

Usually, I had her immediately stop her activity that she was doing, or made her come back to join the group right away, stopping what I was doing to enforce my edict. I justified my actions to myself by thinking that if I did not provide an immediate consequence, she would just continue with the behavior again and again and would never listen to me.

Three things happened when I focused on the behavior first. I let my frustration and anxiety about my loss of control show. It would also tend to escalate the behaviors, causing her to scream or kick out even more, and ultimately it took longer to solve the issue. Lastly, it put Alexa, as a whole child, second to her behavior.

Corrective Action: By the end of the second semester with Alexa, I finally started taking the time to ACT. I discovered that she became easily over-stimulated by noise and was very sensitive to facial expressions. She was comforted by weight, blankets, and music.

After taking the time to work with her just a little bit each week, she was able to learn some of her own triggers. During my second year with Alexa, she could request her own preventive measures, such as, going to her safe space, asking people to talk more quietly, or curling up in a blanket. My co-teacher and I were also able to use her love of games to help her act out some issues she was having, like making friends or asking people questions about their games or blocks, to address some of the underlying causes of her disruptive behaviors. As she developed socially, her emotional control began to increase as well. When there were issues, I made sure that she was fully calmed down (as well as myself) before discussing the behavior.

Throughout the second year, Alexa still received consequences for her behaviors, but only after we had a chance to talk through them. For example, she often had trouble leaving the gym. She wanted to stay and play. When told that she needed to join the class on the way down, she would try to run and hide until everyone left or scream and cry at any teacher who tried to get her to join the class.

My first step was to understand and realize that the gym was important to her. She was able to run and form social connections more easily in the gym than in the classroom. I talked with her and validated her feelings, but I also had to tell her that it was time to leave. There was no other option. She could walk and try to catch up with the group by herself, or she could hold my hand. Sometimes she chose to hold my hand; other times she ran off to join her friends. Lastly, depending on the extent of the tantrum (and if she had hit or yelled at any teachers in the process), she was given a more solid consequence upon returning to the classroom. But, I had to wait to remove her from the site of the original tantrum and wait until her body was calm enough to process what was going to happen.

Lessons learned:

1. Sometimes, taking more time at the beginning dramatically cuts down on the amount of time in a tantrum or disruptive episode. Once the child is at their peak, they are not able to really rationalize their way out of a meltdown. However, once they are calmed, they are more capable of talking through a situation, especially if it is done without shame.

2. Discipline without reflection sets a student up for failure. When I stepped in right away with my discipline, my student didn’t learn to recognize her own triggers. As teachers, one of our biggest goals should be to help our students understand their own learning and self-regulating processes. Self-regulation has to be taught though, which means we have to give our students a chance to achieve it.

3. When we teachers choose our words and actions, we have to remember that what may seem small to an adult can actually be huge for children. In order to help them understand and process their emotions, we need to validate them. If we do not take the time to understand their emotions and the actions that result, then we cannot expect them to take the time to act with thought either.

4. Our tone and facial expressions can escalate a situation just as much as our words can. As adults, we need to be able to calmly discuss our students’ behaviors with them. Otherwise, our words and facial expressions convey the message that they are not worth our time and attention, and that they are nothing but trouble to us. They cannot read our minds, but they can read our body language.

In the end, whatever discipline or consequence method that you choose to follow should all boil down to one thing – relationship. What relationship are you building with the children in your care?

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