As an educator, I have heard this line hundreds of time from parents and students, even other teachers. It reflects a genuine concern that something wrong has happened, but that the person sharing it is more interested in fixing the problem rather than a punitive measure. On the other hand, no one has ever come to me with, “I’m interested in protecting them from the natural consequences of their actions, but…” or, “I don’t want them to learn from their mistake, but…” This is instructive when we consider how we approach discipline with middle school students. We all hope that they learn from their mistakes, make better choices in the future, and fix whatever problems that they have caused.
Research from both psychological and educational studies supports this idea. Pre- and early adolescents are not fully able to connect a punishment to a mistake unless there is a clearly effectual cause. In other words, the best consequences for this age child are the natural ones. Students who receive punitive punishments without clear connections to their actions can become frustrated and are unlikely to change the behavior. On the other hand—and this is crucial—students who are allowed to experience the natural consequences of their actions adapt quickly and are able to change habits and choices. The effect of natural consequences can be further heightened when an adult has a reflective discussion with the child, helping them to link the action and the natural consequence and working with them to plan on how to avoid future negative repercussions for their actions.
In the winter of last year, former Middle School Head Polly Robb and I began a review of the 10-year-old discipline approach in the Middle School. The old approach relied on a system of demerits and infractions, enforced with detentions during break and recess times. Our interest in reviewing the approach stemmed from two sources. The first was the mass of new research over the past few years that showed that traditional punitive discipline systems are not very effective at changing behavior and can be, in some cases, even counter-productive. Missing recess or break time, in particular, has been shown to lead to further behavioral challenges, as kids (particularly those who struggle with consistent behavior) absolutely need the change of pace and activity that takes place during those times.
Our second observation was that while the demerits and infractions were quick responses to misbehavior, they were not having the desired effect in changing behaviors. These intuitions were born out when 5th & 6th Grade Dean Jen Ragsdale and I reviewed the actual use of demerits.
Two trends quickly stood out:
- Boys were receiving the vast majority of demerits – 80-85%
- The number of demerits given out increased year over year within each grade – in other words, 8th graders were receiving more demerits than 7th and 6th graders
An effective discipline system should be responsive to different types of students and, more importantly, should work to improve behavior, not just result in punishment.
Viewed through these lenses, it was clear that we could do better in serving our students by helping them learn from their behavior rather than only punishing them for it.
Armed with the research and observational data, a team of faculty set out to study and create a discipline system that would hold students accountable for their actions, allow natural consequences to occur, and build an opportunity for children to learn from their mistakes and make better decisions moving forward. The faculty team studied a wide variety of other schools like Randolph and read widely in research on discipline and social and emotional learning in the middle school years. The system that they crafted is based on our core values, holds students accountable for their actions, and is focused on helping students improve their behavior.
When a student acts out or makes a bad choice, the teachers will now respond with a natural consequence rather than a demerit. For example, if a child is out of uniform, he or she is sent to the office and asked to obtain the correct pieces from the collection there. The student is responsible for that borrowed article and must return it at the end of the day. If their behavior is more severe or is repeated, they have a conversation with the teacher and perhaps the Dean in addition to the natural consequence. During that conversation, they fill out an action plan during which they describe how they will avoid making the same mistake in the future. They are then held accountable for living up to that plan. If the Dean or I meet with a child, we will send you a copy of the action plan so that you can know what happened and the conversation and consequences that followed.
More ownership, less worrying about getting in trouble
The goal of the program is for each child to take responsibility for his or her actions. Students are actually held more accountable and parental communication will be more open than in the past. In addition, actions of disrespect or bullying will receive a strong initial response that will always involve meeting with a Dean or myself. We will ask the child to admit to their actions and describe how they will improve moving forward with the understanding that further problems would lead to more serious consequences.
So far this year, we have already observed that students who are typically well-behaved already seem less anxious about avoiding the dreaded demerits. Children have also already begun to take more responsibility for their actions. One boy, realizing that he had yet again forgotten his belt, quickly engineered his own solution. While we let him know that he would not be allowed to wear his homemade belt again in the future, I would rather see our children taking ownership for their choices and working to fix their mistakes.
I am confident that in addition to helping children make better choices our new approach will also build bonds between teachers and students who are working together for the good and growth of our children. As we move forward, we will welcome feedback on your child’s experience. We also hope to continue to foster a culture where both students and parents are comfortable sharing when they see or experience something that they know goes against our core values.