What Should Happen When Children Break Rules ?
Note: All the various forms referred to in this chapter have been removed and can be seen in Discipline For Home And School, Book One, Third Edition, from which this chapter was taken. Editor
When children refuse to obey rules in any type of social environment, the key to successful discipline is to offer them choices, so that they can decide the way they want to be. In other words, they must be given the freedom to choose the level of social contact at which they are willing to act responsibly. This means that rather than being subject to punitive actions, which usually create more hostility and do little to teach better ways to live in harmony with others, children should, through their own decision, experience the loss of the privilege of staying wherever they are until they are willing to accept responsibility for the consequences of their actions.
If children refuse to obey the rules of the classroom or the rules at the dinner table, then they must always be offered alternatives. Perceptual control theory teaches that we are living control systems whose behavior is internally driven by the difference between what we want to perceive and what we do perceive. Thus, teachers and parents must respect their children as control systems that make choices among alternatives. When parents attempt to control these systems, children perceive the attempts as interfering with what they themselves are trying to accomplish. Therefore, children who are disruptive in a classroom or home should be asked whether they want to stay in the classroom or wherever they are in the home and obey the rules, or leave.
It is important to remember that children will deal with those perceived by them to have authority. If principals constantly undercut the authority of those who work in their buildings, if children perceive bus drivers or substitute teachers or anyone else as having little or no authority over what happens to them, or if a school’s core team makes decisions that are ignored by administrators, there will be nothing but conflict. Children know who has authority and who doesn’t.
The same is true at home. If a mother makes a decision with a child on a certain course of action, but the father undercuts that decision and doesn’t insist on the child’s accepting responsibility for her acts, then there will be a breakdown of the disciplinary process in that home.
When a group gathers for a common purpose, there is an unspoken agreement to accept the rules and standards common to both the activity and the environment. Whether children are in a restaurant, in a classroom, in a theater, at a football game, or in the home, there are always established rules and standards to follow. The standards are commonly understood, and those who participate with others in the activity give assent to those rules. Respect for the rights of others is part of every culture and is a necessary part of living in harmony with others. Children learn through experience that there are particular rules and stand-ads for each situation. A rule on a school bus might be ”stay in your seat.” But at play during school recess, vigorous running and jumping would be acceptable and even desirable behaviors. Whenever children violate the rights of others by refusing to obey the rules and standards of wherever they are, they should be asked if they want to stay and obey the rules and standards, or leave where they are, reducing their social involvement until they are willing to commit to following the rules and standards and to make a plan to resolve similar problems in the future.
For every privilege people enjoy, certain responsibilities are demanded. When people cannot act responsibly in particular situations, then they forfeit the associated privileges. I am free to drive on public roads as long as I do not abuse the privilege by running stop signs and traffic lights or by driving at excessive speeds.
When children disrupt and refuse to obey rules, there must be a place for them to go until they are willing to commit to following the rules. This does not mean that children should be made fun of, demeaned, or hurt. I will not work in schools where this happens. Perceptual control theory shows clearly that when you push on a living control system, the reaction of that system is not based on what you do to that system, but rather on what it wants and how it currently perceives what it is getting. In other words, people will act to eliminate your effects as a disturbance of perceptions they are trying to control.
The physical destruction of schools correlates with how much school personnel attempt to control children. The more children are offered choices, the less angry they be-come, and the more willing they are to cooperate with others. That doesn’t mean that there won’t be pockets of vandalism from some children the schools are unable to reach. However, the overall frequency of vandalism should decrease over time as children sense more control over what happens to them. They become less frustrated. If students feel more relaxed and experience respect from the school personnel, there is bound to be less damage to school property. Perceptual control theory teaches that you cannot control another living control system except with physical force. Therefore, the only alternative is to teach children to control their perceptions without acting as disturbances to others. Another name for this is responsible thinking.
But how do you structure the choices for students? You have to have a place for children to go where they can sit, calm down, reflect on the choices they have been making, and, if they wish, learn how to make more responsible ones. Perceptual control theory teaches that when people are in conflict, time and patience are needed as they at-tempt to reorganize their thoughts and decide what they really want. It is important that wherever they go, they be left alone, shown respect, and given the opportunity to sift through their own thoughts. If they seek counsel, it should be given. If they want to be by themselves, leave them alone. Living control systems know what they want and what they can handle. Intruding on a living control system when it doesn’t want help is the last thing that should be done. Remember, as has been mentioned before, if you try to push on control systems, they will react according to what is currently important to them, not to what you want. And you can never depend on your own guesses about how other people are going to act when you are perceived as a disturbance to the perceptions they are trying to control.
At home, when children are upset, they should be given the option of calming down and obeying rules or removing themselves from the social environment of the family. For those children who are in first or second grade or are younger, depending on the strength of the child/parent relationships, the alternative location should be to sit in a chair, within view of the family or a parent but still far enough removed to allow them to sense the loss of the privilege of being with the family. They should never be demeaned or hurt. In fact, the parents should express confidence in the child’s ability to resolve the conflict. Saying such things as ”it will work out” or ”you’re going to make it” expresses to the child the parent’s confidence in her ability to succeed and resolve whatever conflict exists. The closer the relationship that children perceive they have with their parents, the more willing they will be to make or accept the alternatives necessitated by their refusal to obey rules and to get along with the rest of the family.
A critical point comes when the child is allowed to get off the chair and rejoin the family. When children make this decision, it is because they want to get along in their environment and are willing to work out a plan to make this happen. This plan must resolve how they are going to deal with the same or a similar problem in the future. They decide to act responsibly and join the family. The decision must be their own. When parents make the choice, they aren’t teaching their children to think for themselves, but merely to follow directions. (Remember, if trying to control children really worked well, you wouldn’t be reading this book!)
Another key point is this: if parents continually make choices for children, who will make responsible choices for those same children when their parents aren’t available? The critical issue is that children must be taught to think for themselves. Otherwise, as they develop and grow, they will not have learned to think responsibly when faced with important decisions. Therefore, it is necessary for children to make the decision and, at the same time, accept the responsibility to work out a plan.
As children grow, so does their ability to handle being totally alone. Thus, once children have matured sufficiently, they should be given the option of going to their room. However, the same principles apply when they want to return: they must commit to resolving the issue, and they must be willing to work out a plan for handling the same problem in the future in a more responsible way.
In school, respecting a child’s internal decision-making process is critical. In the primary grades, a quiet corner should be established for children who are disrupting the class. Children sent to the quiet corner should never be demeaned or hurt in any way, and the teacher should express confidence in the child’s ability to resolve the problem. Just the fact that they take the time and are willing to work with a youngster is evidence to the child that parents and teachers care. This option of removal also can be used in buses, on playgrounds, and in cafeterias. If a child re-fuses to settle down in a bus, she could be given the option of respecting the bus rules and remaining where she is, sitting in a front seat opposite the driver until she has demonstrated that she can respect the rules of the bus, or losing the privilege of being on the bus (see Chapter 30). The playground supervisor could have a restricted area close to where she stands; those children who chronically break the rules might be allowed to remain at play, but in the restricted area, with more intensive supervision, until they can demonstrate the necessary responsibility that would allow them the privilege of using the entire field of play, or, for chronic disrupters, allow for a gradual increase in the restricted area as the students demonstrate the necessary responsibility. The cafeteria supervisor might want to have a special table for children near where she is located. Children would have to use that table when they were unwilling to follow the lunchroom rules when eating with their friends.
As children mature, the quiet corner becomes less effective. They need to be allowed to decide between complete removal from the classroom and, if they are willing to obey rules, remaining. The ideal place for children to go is a classroom where a qualified teacher or counselor works with the disruptive children. I call this the responsible thinking classroom (RTC); it is a place where children are taught the necessary skills for getting along elsewhere in the school environment. It is supervised by an adult trained to deal with children, preferably a teacher or another professional. In schools where there are many disruptive children, an additional person, such as a teacher’s aide, should serve as monitor; this gives the teacher time to work individually with the children. In schools where an extra teacher is cost-prohibitive, teachers and other qualified staff could take turns in the RTC.
A growing number of children come to school lacking the necessary skills for getting along, for working out ways to cooperate, to set limits, to compromise, and to plan and build and manage their lives. The RTC is a place where children learn the skills needed to get along with their peers and their supervisors (teachers, counselors, and administrators), to make efficient plans, in short to develop the skills of self-discipline. Only children who demonstrate the need for such help should go to this classroom, and they should remain there only as long as they need the help.
It is hard for many to understand the critical need for RTCs in most schools. They do not see the critical need that children have for learning skills for making effective plans, for resolving differences with their peers, for respecting the rights of those in the learning arena, and for practicing self-discipline in social settings in general. Yet the number of children in need of such help is overwhelming the schools of our country, and RTCs can help to solve this problem.
The atmosphere and rules of the RTC are critical. It should not be a place where children are amused or pampered. Nor should it be a room where children are verbally or physically abused or humiliated in any way. Actually, at first it is generally perceived by disruptive children as dull and boring, for there aren’t the usual activities found in typical classrooms. As one newcomer to an RTC suggested, ”This has got to be the dumbest place I’ve ever been.” In the RTC at Clarendon School, most of the students saw the place as punitive, like a detention room, when they first arrived. Soon, however, they began to perceive it as a place where they were treated with respect and not demeaned in any way-with strict but fair and respectful adults. Then they came to perceive it as a place where they got some intensive and individual help and many chances to succeed. Finally, they perceived it as a place where others care about them.
The rules for the RTC are simple. Students are asked to sit at a desk, and they are not allowed to talk with or disturb other students. I strongly recommend the use of study carrels. Students may stare at a wall, work on a plan to present to the supervisor where they came from, study, or read. They may also put their heads down on their desks and rest or sleep; many students desperately need to rest.
How long should children remain in the RTC? If they decide to leave one teacher and go to the RTC, should they be there during the time they have other teachers with whom they are succeeding? I’ve found that children should be in the RTC for the time that they have the teacher or supervisor in charge of the place where they disrupted. With regard to a self-contained classroom, it could be that if the child wants to return and is not a chronic offender, and if the teacher has time to negotiate with the child, then perhaps at a natural break time, such as lunch, the child may be permitted to return to class after having negotiated a plan and resolved the problem with the teacher. The important point here is that the return to class and subsequent negotiation of the plan with the teacher should not be the occasion for another disruption of the classroom.
Another alternative was developed in schools where teachers expressed the concern that students, who had worked out a plan, were missing instruction time while waiting for the teacher to negotiate with them. Once the students had expressed the desire to return to class, to follow the rules, and had worked out a plan with the help and approval of the RTC teacher, they were allowed to return directly to class. However, a special desk was placed inside the classroom, next to the door. The student could quietly open the door, slip into the special ”probationary” desk, and could then be exposed to the instruction but would have to wait to participate until there was an appropriate time for the teacher to review and negotiate the student’s plan. If, during the time they were seated at this ”probationary” desk, they disrupted, they would give up the privilege of returning to class without benefit of prior negotiations and would go to the RTC.
In the higher grades, where students switch teachers, the student should be in the RTC only for the time of the class in which he is having difficulty. If students are dealing successfully in one classroom, then they should be allowed to continue in that classroom. They should only be in the RTC for the times they were in class or in other supervised areas where they continued to disrupt rather than follow the rules. Where children are behaving responsibly, depriving them of the opportunity is counterproductive to their development. In short, where they are successful, leave them alone. Nothing builds success like success. If a child is disrupting in the hallways or walkways, then he should be in the RTC all day, since his areas of disruption cannot be easily separated from where he acts responsibly.
The teacher or supervisor in charge of the RTC is extremely important to the success of the process. Ten years ago, in January 1994, I worked closely with Darleen Martin, a certified teacher and the newly appointed RTC teacher, and her aide, during the initial development of RTP. The aide monitored the children and kept track of their schedules. Darleen worked one-on-one with the children, teaching them how to construct plans for negotiating with the persons in charge of where they came from. Darleen is very good at sensing when and where a child needs help. (See Chapter 21.) Parents are often called, and coordinated plans are sometimes made with the children, their teachers, and their parents. Often, make-up work is adjusted to fit a child’s plan. For example, children might be afforded some time after school or during recess in the RTC to work on make-up assignments, where ready help is available. To those children getting help, the RTC is no longer a boring place, but a place where someone cares-where they can get help to succeed. One young man who was dealing with an anger problem made a plan to retreat to the RTC whenever he needed to ”calm down and get my act together.” He also made a ”buddy” plan. He had a friend who had a similar anger problem, so they made an agreement that if one started to get angry, the other would attempt to ”cool him down” or pull him away from the problem. The last I heard, their mutual plan was working well.
Thus, not only is the RTC a place where children go when they refuse to obey the rules in any school area, but it is also a place where many children develop a growing sense that someone cares: that ”I can make it.” It becomes a place to catch the disruptive children before things get worse and, with a lot of very creative thinking, to help them turn their lives around. To do this, you need very special people in charge of these rooms-people like Darleen. She literally becomes the conduit for moving the child through the most efficient process for his individual success. With some children, she will work directly with their teachers. With other children, she will sense the need to send them on for personal counseling to the school counselor or social workers. With some more recalcitrant children who are un-willing to work things out, she patiently waits them out. Eventually, all but a very few of those she sees want to re-solve their problems, return to where they came from, and succeed.
If children disrupt in the RTC, then they should be given the option of acting responsibly where they are, or going home until they are willing to return to school and obey the rules. Some states and school boards require that children be suspended for a specific length of time. Regardless of when children return to school, whether according to state law or school board mandate, or because they have disrupted in the RTC and have now decided that they want to return, they should first meet, along with their parents or guardian, with the school administrator for a re-entry conference. (See re-entry form, page 41.) The purpose of this conference is to determine if the student is committed to following the rules. When the principal asks students if they are ready to commit to following the rules, many students are still vague and undecided. Interestingly, in schools that have been using this process, parents often volunteer statements such as “I can see my son isn’t ready to return. We’ll be back when he is.” And more often than not, the next day their son is “now ready.”
When students are ready to return, they are not immediately mainstreamed back into classes. Following serious misconduct or refusals to follow the rules in the RTC, they should be returned to the last place that they occupied before they left, namely the RTC. It just doesn’t make sense to mainstream children into other classes if they have yet to make commitments and plans to resolve the issues with which they were unwilling to deal before they left (see also Chapter 13). Once in the RTC, the students must work out plans if they wish to return to the places from which they originally came. Again, to allow children into an environment where they haven’t learned to get along is setting them up for more failure. The purpose of the RTC is to preserve the integrity of the classroom. To mainstream disruptive students who haven’t demonstrated responsibility in a more restricted environment just doesn’t make sense. The other purpose of the RTC is to teach children to become responsible.
When children have been suspended from school or are chronically in the RTC, then a more intense method of involvement between the disruptive youngster and persons who have experience handling difficult situations should be arranged. For this purpose, schools typically use social workers, psychologists, school counselors, or administrators. Regardless of who it is, and this also could be initiated by the RTC teacher, when children return to school from having been suspended, they should work out a plan, which will involve highly intense supervision, and which must be understood by and agreeable to the child, his parents, and the administrator. At first, such children might be sent only to a limited number of classes, or to teachers who are willing to work with them. Of course, the RTC teacher should be involved in all negotiations. This plan is called earn-all, and is so called because the students literally earn back all their class time. They list (see earn-all schedule, page 42; see also Chapter 21) all their classes and periods of study ranked from where they find it easiest to get along to where it is hardest to get along. They might begin with one or two of the easiest, and as they demonstrate success in those classes, more difficult ones are added. Some might argue that they are missing class. I would argue that the other students aren’t. More importantly, the students are building within themselves the belief that they “can make it” and are experiencing success at a limited level. It is this belief in self through successful experiences that is the major key to chronically failing students becoming successful.
Another alternative for helping students succeed is using a monitor sheet (see page 43). If the returning child is being mainstreamed back to class, then a form should be created which lists, along with the name of the child and the person working with the student, those who are going to be supervising the child as she goes through the day. Included on this list should be her teachers and those in charge of the bus she rides, her playground, and her cafeteria. At the beginning of each period, the person in charge is handed the form by the child. At the end of the period, the person in charge signs the form and makes appropriate short remarks regarding the child’s conduct. At the end of the school day, the child returns to the administrator in charge of discipline, and together they review the day’s events. If the parents are involved, then a copy is made of the form and sent home for a parent’s signature. This should continue for a minimum of two weeks. The intensity of the twice-daily interaction with each person supervising the child goes a long way toward helping the child succeed.
Finally, children who are absent from class often find themselves far behind the class in subject learning. Once children resolve their conflicts and learn to get along in a classroom, I believe that their prior difficulties should not be held against them. Nor should they be penalized for what they have done, any more than if they had been absent from school due to sickness. Every opportunity should be given to children who have been disruptive to make up their work. Perhaps getting one of the more responsible students to help a student who has fallen behind might benefit both.