Large ships, like oil supertankers, are not very nimble. Their size (1,200′ and longer) and their weight (some carrying almost two million gallons of crude oil) and their speed (over 20 knots) combine to create momentum that requires serious planning ahead when it comes to stops and turns. Stopping a loaded supertanker can take five miles or more (even with the gears in full reverse) and turning requires a radius of five to ten miles.
The education system can be compared to a supertanker in that it seems to take so long for meaningful change to take place. Based on several recent articles, though, it appears the supertanker of education is turning! Of special interest, these significant changes are directly tied to the principles of choice theory.
An article (May, 2015) in Phi Delta Kappan – Relationships: The Fundamental R in Education – is an example of a recurring theme in educational journals for several years now. “Adolescents need to feel cared for,” the article opened, “if they are to succeed in school.” More than warm fuzziness, caring relationships are based on tangible action. Important for young children, certainly, however more and more it is being recognized just how important caring, supportive relationships are for teenagers. The article emphasized points many of us could rattle off without even reading it: 1) establishing a safe, academically-focused culture, 2) helping each student to see their own role as a classroom stakeholder, 3) teaching students how to effectively communicate, both in what and how they say things, as well as the importance of listening, 4) fostering friendships between students, 5) inspiring students to embrace respect and to express respect to one another, and 6) encouraging and expecting responsibility.
Use personal pronouns. “I care enough about you to be involved, to be your friend.” Spend a few seconds throughout the day reinforcing involvement. William Glasser (1974)
These are the kinds of ideas and behaviors that Dr. Glasser emphasized throughout his life. He started off talking about the need for involvement between therapist and client or between teacher and student. For him, involvement was about a warm, caring regard that therapist or teacher would have toward the client or the child with whom they worked. This caring connection, for him, was vital to success. Only as students felt connected to their teachers and to their fellow students could they thrive in a classroom setting.
It got my attention even more when I saw some of the headlines in the most recent edition of American Educator. On the cover it proclaimed, “Seeding Change in School Discipline: The Move from Zero Tolerance to Support,” while the first article’s headline read, “From Reaction to Prevention: Turning the Page on School Discipline.” The opening paragraphs describe this change well –
We stand today in the middle of an important debate on the role, function, and practice of school discipline. There can be no question that any approach we implement should strive to create a school climate that is safe, orderly, and civil, and that teaches our children basic values of respect and cooperation. The key question revolves around the best way to accomplish that goal.
For some 20 years, numerous policymakers responded to concerns about school safety and disruption with a “get tough” philosophy relying upon zero-tolerance policies and frequent out-of-school suspensions and expulsions. But research has overwhelmingly shown that such approaches are ineffective and increase the risk for negative social and academic outcomes, especially for children from historically disadvantaged groups. In response to these findings, educational leaders and professional associations have led a shift toward alternative models and practices in school discipline. District, state, and federal policymakers have pressed for more constructive alternatives that foster a productive and healthy instructional climate without depriving large numbers of students the opportunity to learn.
I have written about this before, but it needs to be said again. When Glasser was working at the Ventura School for Girls (a prison school) he learned from the girls that rather than their troubled homes being the cause of their path to getting into trouble and eventually into prison, they explained that it was getting into trouble at school, and then being suspended or expelled that put them onto the streets and ultimately into prison.
“From Reaction to Prevention” – written over 50 years later – strongly confirms that suspension and expulsion are “in themselves risk factors for negative long term outcomes,” which affect not only the student but also society as a whole. To put this in clearer terms –
The Council of State Governments’ report Breaking Schools’ Rules: A Statewide Study of How School Discipline Relates to Students’ Success and Juvenile Justice Involvement found that suspension and expulsion for a discretionary school violation, such as a dress code violation or disrupting class, nearly tripled a student’s likelihood of involvement with the juvenile justice system within the subsequent year.
A get tough approach based on external control rewards and punishments wasn’t the answer 50 years ago and it isn’t the answer today. The article states that three keys are needed toward the creation of effective discipline alternatives: 1) relationship building, 2) social-emotional learning, and 3) structural interventions. Choice theorists can readily embrace relationship building and social-emotional learning, as these are the essence of what choice theory is about. Choice theory, in fact, has much to offer in these two areas. The third key, structural interventions, is not so easily embraced. By structural interventions the article is talking about management models based on a humane, choice-oriented format.
Glasser began to be uncomfortable with school discipline models in 1990 and completely rejected them in 1996, citing his belief that by their very nature discipline models focused on changing the kid, rather than on changing the system that led to the misbehavior in the first place. Additionally, he cited that he didn’t like things that were “cooky-booky.” He even rejected his own 10-Step Plan, though it didn’t contain even a shred of external control. I agree with Glasser’s concerns, as I have witnessed first hand how hard it is for teachers to really shift from external control, with its rewards and punishments, to internal control, with its focus on all individual behavior being purposeful. In spite of this agreement, though, I think it may be time to re-look at what choice theory has to offer when it comes to classroom management.
Choice theory, while present in some school districts, is not a major player on a national scale when it comes to school leadership and classroom management. It should be. In its absence, other models – like Positive Behavioral Intervention & Supports (PBIS) and The Responsive Classroom – are more than happy to fill the void. Teachers need the theory of choice theory, but they also need the key steps in the application of the theory. A model, framework, or structure is needed for those just beginning the journey. There is a danger in adopting a structure, as it can be misunderstood and misapplied, but it seems like there is also a danger in not having one, that being the danger of becoming irrelevant.
Regardless, though, the ship is turning! We can celebrate that school systems are more ready than ever for change when it comes to classroom management. Educators and researchers agree that get-tough approaches based on reward/punishment don’t work. With schools in desperate need of classroom management alternatives, what can choice theory offer them? Certainly a wonderful theory and compelling ideas. A framework? A model? Hmm . . .
Brene’ Brown and William Glasser are right – we are hardwired to connect with others. Management plans that don’t acknowledge and embrace this truth cannot succeed.
Don’t become too preoccupied with what is happening around you.
Pay more attention to what is going on within you.
Mary Frances Winters