When Group Discipline is Detrimental to Our Children

Over the past few weeks, I have had several conversations with concerned parents about how their children are being treated in their elementary, middle & high schools.  One parent told me about an elementary school that has instituted silent lunch periods.  Another bemoaned a teacher’s system of using a traffic light to indicate behavior – green for good, yellow for a warning and red for unacceptable.  In a middle school, administrators have decided to combat restroom shenanigans by forbidding students to leave class to go.  They can only use restrooms during the change of periods.  A fourth parent told me about how he had “humiliation flashbacks” when his 4th grader said that a substitute wrote his name on the whiteboard when he asked a friend for a pencil.

Haven’t we learned to do better than to demean, humiliate and defeat students?  As our knowledge about and the ability to identify special needs has improved, so has our knowledge of how to guide behavior and build self-esteem.  We know that every child develops at his/her own rate and we cannot expect everyone to master skills at the same time in the same way.  This is true of academic and social skills.  If five children in a class have not mastered reading, we don’t hold everyone back.  We work with the five struggling students.  We evaluate and give them extra help. We don’t hang traffic lights and put them in the red zone so the whole world knows they are deficient in reading.   That would be embarrassing.  We know not to humiliate children when they struggle academically; yet so many people will do so when they struggle socially and emotionally.  In too many cases, so little thought is given to the harm being done to individual students who are put in red on the stoplight or whose names are written on the board indicating behavior issues.  Doesn’t it always seem like the same names end up in the red or on the board?  Children learn nothing from punitive and humiliating discipline except to try to not get caught.  Children who struggle with behavioral challenges need to be taken as seriously and treated with as much care & respect as those who struggle to read, write and do math.

Haven’t we learned better than to deprive all children of their basic rights because of the behavior of a few?  When adults declare silent lunch periods or locked restrooms, it is obvious that they are grasping for control.  All day long, students participate in adult led activities and conversations.  It is appalling to think that nearly the only time of day when the conversation really belongs to them, they will be forbidden to speak.  School isn’t only about passing tests.  It is also about functioning as a microcosm of society.   It is equally if not more appalling to hear that students are being deprived of the right to use a restroom for the majority of the day.  I cannot imagine anyone telling an adult at work that the restrooms are off limits.  It would be unacceptable.  It is for children, too.

If we acknowledge that students are learning nothing from tactics that humiliate and are based upon detrimental adult control motives, then we need to consider what to do to teach acceptable behavior.  We need to look toward those lessons we have learned from behaviorists and special needs specialists.  In the 1930’s & 1940’s, behaviorist B.F. Skinner purported that positive reinforcement yielded positive results.  Skinner’s and other similar theories are used when working with students with ADD, ADHD and other diagnosed behavioral challenges.  Those theories should apply to everyone.  Tell the students what behavior is expected and why.  Teach them.  Then reward the behavior you want to see.  If students still exhibit behavior beyond acceptable boundaries, the consequences should be logical.  If you talk to your friends when you should be listening, you cannot sit near your friends.  If you sit in the back of the room and distract others, then you cannot sit in the back of the room.  If you cheat, you fail.  If you cannot sit still, maybe… just maybe, you need to be allowed to stand or go for a short break to that unlocked restroom.  Instead of depriving all students the right to speak or relieve themselves, figure out who needs to be monitored or what systems can be put in place to protect those who don’t deserve punishment.  We need to protect the innocent instead of focusing all efforts based on the challenges of a few.  Tolerance, acceptance, encouragement of self-esteem and basic rights should be taken into consideration when dealing with the entire population – those who challenge us and those who do not.

Read this blog for more articles.  Ask your parenting & education questions and learn about early childhood workshops for parents & educators on my website - www.helpingkidsachieve.com
Copyright 2013 © Cindy Terebush
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  1. I don't agree with humiliating children, either in groups or individually. And the thought of instituting a "silent lunch" is just about the worst idea I've ever heard!
    Yet many teachers use the "traffic light" system effectively, without humiliating children. As far as a substitute teacher placing a child's name on the board due to asking for a pencil... I would bet my last hundred bucks that there was a little bit more happening than just that! I have to say that I would give most teachers the benefit of the doubt before convicting them based on just one person's version of what happened. Being a classroom teacher is a very stressful job. One thing we know for sure is that only about 50% of those that try it stick with it for more than five years.
    How many years were you a classroom teacher, Cindy?

    Heidi Butkus

    1. I do teach - I've never left classroom teaching. I am very fortunate to be able to continue teaching while I am in the position of school director. Each year, I schedule time to teach in different grades. This year, for example, I am teaching Pre-K students 3 mornings per week, 8-10th graders 1 class per week and, in the next quarter, will teach a 6th grade class. While my time in the classroom is more limited than in years past, I am at the core a classroom teacher and hope to always be able to spend time doing that.

  2. I think this is a wonderful article. You made some very valid points. Thank you for sharing.


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