OCM-Responsive Classroom: Public Discipline Systems Need To Go!

In a Responsive Classroom, we believe that “discipline” should be associated with the positive (acts of learning) rather than the negative (punishing). We believe we need to set children in our classroom up for success by providing direct instruction and guided practice in pro-social and academic skills. We use many proactive strategies such as interactive modeling, role-play, morning meeting, positive teacher language, democratic rule creation, interactive learning structures, guided discoveries, academic choice, energizers, closing circles, and others.   These teaching practices develop positive learning communities that are developmentally responsive and effectively managed so that engaging academics can flourish.  Responsive Classroom teachers spend a majority of their time and energy in the proactive side of discipline. (Being proactive is one of the habits of highly effective people, according to author Steven Covey). When we respond to misbehavior and are reactive in our discipline we use strategies that foster children to get back on track, stop the behavior and restore a safe learning environment. The approach believes that we as humans all want to belong, to be significant and be engaged in what we are doing. We need to experience intrinsic motivation rather than the extrinsic motivation (rewards and punishments) to make pro-social choices in life. Responsive Classroom Discipline and Public Discipline Systems

Intrinsic motivation belief aligns well with the finding in Daniel Pink’s book Drive. Science points to the fact that we as humans are more intrinsically motived which aligns with the constructivist nature of our classrooms of today rather than the behaviorist classrooms of the past, that relied on the “dangling carrot” (reward) or the fear of punish (fear, shame and pain) to get children to behave. As Alfie Kohn say, “Responsibility, motivation, and respect are not the same as obedience, compliance, and fear.” (Kohn, Beyond Discipline, 2006-ASCD).

In Why Didn’t I Learn This in College?, author Paula Rutherford has a short article called Stop the Stoplights!. In this article she says, “Do not think about putting student’s names on the board! Do not consider placing student’s names on red construction paper hearts and moving them in and out of an outline of your heart! Save stop lights for traffic control in the streets! Lee Canter, author of Assertive Discipline, stated over twenty year ago that he was mistaken when he had in the past advocated such a practice.” (Rutherford, 2009) She goes on and poses the question to teachers, “…how would you feel if the principal or workshop leader wrote your name on the board when you arrived late, forgot your materials, had a side conversation, or some other infraction?”

Well, I was one of those late 80’s early 90’s teachers that got suckered into Lee Canter’s book Assertive Discipline.   I was moving from a teaching job in Massachusetts to a job in New York State where I would be taking the place of a teacher who was let go due to having poor classroom management. In order to make sure I was more successful in the position, I thought I might need to bone up on my classroom management skills…enter Canter’s book. I brought the color-coded card system to the school and converted all my colleagues. The idea seemed rather appealing, and because the guru of the time, Canter wrote a book about it, it must be an effective approach.

Flash forward to 2001.  I became a Staff Development Specialist and father of two school aged children. My initial certification training for Responsive Classroom forced me to reflect on two thought provoking questions:

  1. What is your belief in children and discipline?
  2. What and why do you do what you do? And how’s that working for you?

At first I wanted to believe that what I did was right and worked. I cringed at the thought that I might not have been doing the best for children in my classroom. But through further reflection I had many revelations!

First, I discovered that my belief in children and what I did was not in alignment. I am a huge believer that relationship is everything in the classroom. (Be sure to see September 2016 issue of Educational Leadership “Relationship First”).   But my practice of having children pull cards for misbehaviors really compromised my deepest belief that was the cornerstone of my classroom, RELATIONSHIP and POSITIVE COMMUNITY. I also discovered that my “green card” kids in the fall were my “green card” kids in the spring and my “red card” kids in the fall, were still my “red card” kids in the spring. The practice had little if anything to do with “learning” but I did discover it had more to do with me having all the power and control. Jane Nelson, author of Positive Discipline, says a good discipline model is one that causes children to be “independent” of us, not “dependent” on us. The card system I used was totally counter to my belief in children. It was a system that forced children to be dependent on my evaluation of their behavior. I now wonder how many children were “green card” kids and behaved out of fear of having to move the public card to the next color. Fear was NOT what I ever set out to have in my classroom. I also wondered how many of my “red card” kids got their significance met by at least being known for something, even though it was not the most desirable thing to be known for, but they were at least knows as the kid with the “red” card in the classroom.

My second finding was as a parent. By this time in my life I had children of my own in school. I started to think how these public displays of behavior really did violate family privacy. Why is my child’s behavior public for all to see should you visit their classroom? I also noticed from my own children that they would report when they got home who had to “pull a card” that day…and as a parent I noticed often times it was the same child. It validated for me that first of all, this is not family business and how the practice developed student stereotypes in the classroom.  My kids would report, “So-and-so had to pull a card again today.” Not a great thing when you are trying to help all children to feel safe, cared for and successful.

The final nails in coffin for my use of public discipline models was when I have run into my former 5th grade students.   They were ten and eleven years old when I saw them last and they are now in their early 30’s. Running into my former students is the biggest joy for me. I am thankful for social networks such as Facebook that allows me to still be part of my students lives in their adulthood. I love to see what they have become and how their lives are as young adults. I too reconnected with my 4th grade teacher, she was the teacher who inspired me to be a teacher and taught me that relationship was the key.  I also love when I run into students out and about in the community. When I hear, “Hey, Mr. Shaw…Remember me?” My heart skips a beat, fearful they have changed so much I might need to ask who they are.  Well, two meetings such as these has caused me to realize that my use of a public discipline model was so not what I wanted as an outcome. My first encounter was my former 5th grade student Maggie Deegan, who is now a teacher and a brand new mom of a beautiful little baby. Maggie not only had me as a teacher in 5th grade but also as a teacher when she was in my Responsive Classroom training. This was so joyful to think I was having a second opportunity to have her as a student. Well, during our discussion of this subject, I knew I could use Maggie as an example and made the point, “The green card kids was always the green card kids…Like Maggie…She was a green card kid.” As I said this I could see her shaking her head “no”. I was confused and asked her why she was shaking her head. She proceeded to share that she remembered the one day I gave her a warning and she had to turn her card to warning card “yellow”. She said, she was so upset, she cried. Which is the typical response of the “green card” kids.  I looked at my audience of teachers and said, “There you go! I told you it was a terrible practice! Here is this 30 year old teacher that remembers the one day in fifth grade where she had to turn a card.” It was so telling for me how this was such a destructive practice in so many ways. I know that Maggie and I have a great relationship, but this is so not a memory I want her to have of me and my teaching. I publically apologized to her and said, we all make mistakes and can’t beat ourselves up for past practices that we thought were effective, but we need to make sure that the practices that we use today are the best for children and researched based.

The second student I ran into was last winter at a Syracuse University Basketball game. As I was trying to make my way to my seat, I hear, “Oh my God! Mr. Shaw! You were my teacher!” I looked and waited for the name to be given. And low and behold I see 32 year old Courtney Hawkins. I remember her as a sweet and fun ten year old, but she had changed a ton since the last time I saw her in my class. We chatted for quite a while trying to catch up on each other’s lives. But then it happened…the card system was brought up again! (Another nail in the coffin!) She said, “I was really kind of a naughty kid. I was bad!” (Her friends she was sitting with giggled). “I was new to the school and didn’t know a lot of people and I was always on the “red” card.” My jaw dropped. My memory of this former student was so not as a kid who gave me any problems. I did remember her being new to our school district but always felt she was warm, friendly and kind to all. I looked her straight in the eye and said, “Oh, Courtney…you were by no means a ‘bad’ kid. I totally do not remember you misbehaving in my class and I am so sorry that at thirtysomething you still remember a discipline practice that I now despise. I am so sorry.” She proceeded to run guard for me and said, “No Mr. Shaw…I am sure I deserved every card I pulled.” I responded, “No Courtney, you didn’t deserve that, you deserved more respect and I should have preserved your dignity better. That was a practice being used all over the country at the time, but research now shows that it is an ineffective practice. You now have inspired me to write a blog! There should not be thirty year old people walking this planet thinking they are ‘bad’ people. That practice needs to stop and you have helped me to realize it is my responsibility to use my platform to assure that the next generation of teachers don’t make the same mistake.” These two interactions really haunted. That’s why this blog is my way to right a classroom wrong that at the time we thought was right. I apologize to my former students and colleagues. Unfortunately this old 90’s practice is still being used in classrooms today. Teachers see idea from Pintrest or Teachers Pay Teachers where concept still exists.   I want to warn today’s teachers not to get suckered into “glitzy” new age public discipline systems—like Class Dojo, stoplights, moving clothespins along a colored card, writing names on the board, marble jars, and other incentives. We behave because we have learned “how to” not because someone is going to do something or give us something because we followed the rule. Don’t be afraid to “teach” and “coach” discipline and allow your children many opportunities to practice and receive growth producing feedback as they demonstrate pro-social behavioral learning targets.

You want more on this topic?

  • Against the Use of the Response Cost Strategy of the Red, Yellow, and Green Flip Charts Written by Laura A. Riffel, Ph.D. – CLICK HERE
  • Column: Hey teachers, please stop using behavior charts. Here’s why – CLICK HERE

  • Public Discipline Models Center for Responsive Schools (July 2015) – CLICK HERE
  • Why I will Never Use A Behavioral Chart Again Teaching in Progress Blog – CLICK HERE

Shaw_PatrickPatrick Shaw
OCM BOCES – Staff Development Specialist
Certified Responsive Classroom® Trainer by the Center for Responsive Schools (Developers of the Responsive Classroom approach to teaching and learning)

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