I have a three-year-old son at home who is that child whose behavior is my karmic payback for the times I mouthed off to my parents. He's a boundary-tester and an eye-lash-batting innocent cherub for whom consequences like time out and taking away of toys have no influence on behavior. Though I regret it, there have been times when the worst of me has come out, and this 32-year-old ends up shouting at that 3-year-old.
And then he cries and cries and I feel horribly guilty.
But usually it changes his behavior, at least for a while. The same results cannot be said for a stint in time-out.
I was venting my frustrations to my dad this last fourth of July when he mentioned that behavior changes only result from one of two things: fear or understanding. I don't know if he discovered this on his own or if he learned this from some workshop, but it rings very true. My dad is a well-respected educator who taught for over three decades, served in the military, and has even volunteered in prisons to teach math to inmates. He made me realize that if I want to influence my toddler's behavior, I should aim for understanding. My son needs to understand why it's not okay to punch his brother or jump off the dining room table. Sometimes a lesson is learned the hard way (he hasn't leapt off the back of the couch even once since that trip to the ER with bashed-in teeth) but there are many other lessons I'm having a hard time teaching him simply because there are a lot of things a three-year-old just isn't capable of understanding yet.
There are obvious analogies to teaching.
When I consider classroom management through this same lens, I realize that my classroom discipline system is also founded upon fear and understanding. I teach high school, and I write about one discipline referral a year. To some, that might be an indicator of lax rules or a limp teacher unwilling to assert discipline. There are many educators who take pride in their referral count.
I teach regular kids in a suburbanish-rural school, and our community is relatively stable and a little more affluent than the neighboring districts. But I've also worked in three other districts--all of which serving populations with higher than 80% subsidized meals and I even worked in one high school where the proportion was so high that it was more cost effective to just give every student free or reduced-cost subsidized lunch. In those other contexts, my discipline approach was the same, and I wrote just as few referrals.
In hindsight and reflection, I believe that the cooperation I receive from my students is the result of my emphasis on understanding over fear. Sure, there are threats of consequence when necessary, but even though I work with ninth graders (who, as some joke, are not quite yet real people) they are fully capable of understanding the purpose and necessity of rules and policies.
The reason I am reflecting on all this now is that I've observed a handful of teachers and staff in our profession who seem to turn to "inspiring fear" as their default means of achieving cooperation or compliance from students. These are the adults for whom yelling at a kid is the default interaction, whether it is in the locker bay or in the classroom. I'm not above raising my voice (there are legends in the hallways about what happens when the "G-Bomb" drops--a reference to my last name) but it is truly a last resort, despite the legends the students perpetuate.
I rarely have to drop that bomb, maybe once every two or three years or so, and I realize that the hallway legend represents a touch of that fear factor which may help students cooperate the first week or so in September. But after that, I know that just as with instruction, if students do not understand why I expect what I expect, how can I expect them to perform? And the they should know better excuse doesn't fly with me. If their behavior tells me they don't know better, it is my job to help them know better by helping them understand...just like when I discover they don't know the content of my course it is my job to teach them, not punish them.
As educators, whether serving kids as the secretary, security guard, teacher, or principal, when seeking cooperation and compliance from students we ought to always default to promoting understanding rather than inspiring fear.
My three-year-old will continue to be a challenge. Today I had a victory in the realm of "understanding." We've been working on "first-time listening," where he does what we ask the first time we ask. Today, I asked him to put his pirate ship away where it belongs, and he didn't. I asked again. No dice. So he went to time out. I asked him "Why are you in time out?" He replied correctly that he had not done "first-time listening." Then I asked him "What does first-time listening mean?" To which he replied "I get my toys taken away."
Whoops. Not quite the understanding I want.
Finally, after struggling to translate my thoughts into three-year-old-speak, I was finally able to get him to understand. Now, whenever I ask him to do something, I tell him "I am asking the first time...please pick up your legos. What will happen if I have to ask a second time?" He gets it, and the day has gone much better. Sure, there's still the the fear piece there that a second-time request means a consequence, but now I see that I needed to help him begin to understand my expectation of cooperation rather than simply fear a consequence.
There's been a distinct decrease in yelling and tantrums (knock on wood). And I attribute this to focusing on understanding rather than fear.