The Perils of Classroom Discipline: or, Why The Superintendant took away my Hickory Switch

Sometimes fear, even perceived fear, is a powerful motivator.

Once in a while, when one of my classes gets particularly unruly, I like to pick up a pointer.  It is one of those old fashioned wooden jobs that makes a wonderful whistling sound when it hurtles toward someone’s backside.  I’d hold it, wield it, swing it here and there, and the children would stop and stare at me.  Some have a look of utter terror.  One child has the gumption to ask, “Mr. D, why do you love that pointer so much?”

My response: “Because it reminds me of a time when it was legal to beat you.”

Now, I would never hit a child, of course.   My students also know I won’t hit them, but it’s never far from their minds that one day…just one day…Mr. D could finally lose it and wallop someone into oblivion.   Perceptions of fear, violence, and even insanity have become cornerstones of my discipline–well, that and a good ear for the mood of the class.  Almost the entire school is convinced that I’m insane, or at least neurotic.  It could be because of my obsession with historical minutia and the need to look at details to get the bigger picture.  Or it could be my habit of talking to myself at times, which is often necessary to get my thoughts in order.  Whatever the case, it keeps students in check, and actually gets them to do work…although most probably finish assignments “just so that nutjob can get off our backs!”

Let’s face it, the days of Sister Mary Margaret wielding her Yardstick of Righteousness are over.  Classroom discipline, or “classroom management” as the educational establishment likes to call it, is a whole new universe of approachs, studies and strategies designed to encourage (not shame) children towards acceptable behavior.  Even instilling fear has become a no-no, although neither my kids, nor their parents, seem to mind it from me.  New approaches today focus on self-motivation–allowing students to figure out for themselves what is acceptable and what is not.

A recent Wall Street Journal article discusses these new techniques in early childhood classrooms.  According to the article, discipline problems in children are not only rising, they are also starting at a younger age.  The causes of this are varied, including “pressure on teachers to stress math and reading over emotional skills; family instability; a decline in playtime; heavy use of child care; or a rise in learning problems such as attention-deficit disorder.” 

In view of this dilemma, some classrooms have, according to the WSJ, resorted to a two-prong approach: an increase in time for dramatic or pretend play, coupled with lessons on self-control allotted through the curriculum.  Dramatic play lets children play out roles in society for various amounts of time, allowing them to figure out for themselves where the behavioral limits lie.  Using assigned roles in working groups for math and reading lessons helps children understand limits and appreciate respect for their peers. 

For younger children, especially in preschool, the PATHS approach is gaining in popularity.  While most students today are encouraged to verbalize their emotions, younger children who are just learning to communicate need different skills.  According to the article, “children are encouraged when upset to emulate Twiggle the turtle, a green puppet who pulls into his shell: They stop, cross their arms over their chests, take a deep breath and give a name to their emotions.”  As always, good behavior should always be encouraged and rewarded.

Dramatic play is a very good tool for discipline in that, like critical thinking, it allows students to gain ownership over behavioral issues.  A bald, fat know-it-all (like me) or a dictator dressed like a penguin (like Sister Mary Margaret) have often used discipline in an authoritative fashion, imposing our will on others whether they like it or not–and they usually don’t.  Playing out roles or scenarios allows children to make their own codes of behavior from an early age.  Thus, their behavior will not only improve, but those lessons will last longer into their schooling.

The other approaches, such as behavioral lessons in curricular workshops, or emotional workshops such as PATHS, are also effective, particularly in younger children.  They also allow children to figure out acceptable behavior with as little adult interference as possible.  Children often lash out because of a sense of no control, and these programs help to give that control.

My worry about these approaches is twofold.  First, these strategies have to be implemented at an early age or they won’t work.  With older children, dramatic play and emotional gestures just will not yield the same results.  While the results of these approaches will be seen in the future, there are plenty of discipline problems in the here and now.  Many children from ages 8-12 have already been hardwired to behave in certain ways based on a myriad of factors, including their home life and their neighborhood.  Are there no discipline approaches for these children, short of an extreme regression therapy?  I say this because it is my demographic, and I have to deal with these students–hence the insanity.

Furthermore, and I hate sounding like a union rep, but these strategies leave out the important role of good parenting.  Why must teachers essentially “mommy” other children when parents are, in essence, the ultimate arbiters of discipline?  It doesn’t matter which approach or strategy is used on a child: if it isn’t followed through in the home, it is a waste of time.  Unfortunately, many parents, especially in struggling communities, are simply overgrown children themselves–though there are many exceptions.  If we cannot trust adults to behave as such, there is little more we can expect from the children.    Don’t believe me?  I refer you to a previous post in the Neighborhood about a foul-mouthed toddler.  Enough said.

If you are a fellow teacher, you know that discipline is the hardest thing to master.  Even the best teachers are often saddled with classes forged by Lucifer–I’m familiar with a few this year.  The best advice I can give?  Keep the door closed, keep the kids busy, do what works–and if all else fails, ask for help.  There is no shame in asking to send Johnny for a time-out in another classroom.

Or just act as if you’re batshit insane.  It works for me.

2 Comments

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2 responses to “The Perils of Classroom Discipline: or, Why The Superintendant took away my Hickory Switch

  1. You make some good points above.
    However, I also think that this can be helpful to you:
    The book and Training Video: PREVENTING Classroom Discipline Problems

    If you can get this book and video: [they are in many libraries, so you don’t have to buy them] email me and I can refer you to the sections of the book and video [that demonstrates the effective vs. the ineffective teacher] that can help you.

    If your library does not have them, you can get them at:

    http://www.panix.com/~pro-ed/

    that are also used at this online course:
    http://www.ClassroomManagementOnline.com

    See: Reviews at: http://classroommanagementonline.com/comteach.html

    If you cannot get the book or video, email me anyway, and I will try to help.

    Best regards,

    Howard

    Howard Seeman, Ph.D.
    Professor Emeritus,
    City Univ. of New York

    Prof. Seeman
    Hokaja@aol.com

  2. Ah yes, the many untold advantages of having a reputation for being “unbalanced”.

    Even in my office-peon job it has reaped me numerous rewards in the form of never being anyone’s first choice when looking for someone to do… just about anything.

    That and almost never having to answer stupid questions. And literally never having to answer them from the same person twice…

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