De-escalate situations before they become discipline referrals

It can be easy, as a teacher, to blame students for their misbehavior – specifically when we are talking about broadly defined offenses like “defiance,” or “disrespect.” While students certainly must learn to be accountable for how they act and react, it’s not a bad idea for teachers to consider what role they play in molding student reactions. How can we build a more positive school culture?

According to this article from Education Week, a research study at an urban, Midwest school found the following disparities between discipline referrals for white versus black students:

In a 2002 analysis of the discipline data from an unnamed large, urban district in the Midwest, researchers found that white students were more likely to be referred for discipline for the more narrowly defined offenses of smoking, leaving without permission, vandalism, and obscene language. The same analysis found that African-American students were more likely to be disciplined for the broader offenses of disrespect, excessive noise, threats, and loitering.

“Those are things that are much more subjective in terms of interpretation,” said Russell Skiba, a psychology professor at Indiana University in Bloomington who co-authored the study. “Even ‘threat’ is depending on the perception of the person being threatened.”

What’s more, inconsistent discipline from teachers can foster a lack of trust in students, causing them to misbehave in sort of a self-sustaining loop, researchers say.

I remember when a former principal of mine introduced a new tardy policy to the faculty. We were no longer permitted to send a tardy student out of class to get a note. (This just increased the amount of class time missed, and the amount of off-task behavior in the hallways.) We were instructed to let the students into class, and then to mark them down as tardy. Depending on the number of tardies, or the number of minutes late (past seven counted as truant), we were to issue a consequence.

“Don’t say things that are just going to start a conflict,” explained our principal. “If someone arrives late, give him the work and ask him to have a seat. Don’t ask ‘Where have you been?’ or ‘Why are you late?’” He intonated those inquiries with a sarcastic voice. “You don’t need an answer to those questions, and they just encourage an argument to start.”

As soon as he gave his example, it hit me (in a way I hadn’t considered before) how the manner by which I reacted to students could actually encourage some of the misbehaviors we ultimately seek to avoid.

The website Intervention Central offers several ideas for how to avoid the “power struggle trap” with students at this link. Some highlights include reminders about tone of voice, using positive words, and non-verbal strategies.

Certainly, as educators, we don’t want to churn forth a generation of students who don’t know how to respond appropriately to positional authority – but we also need to remember that students are children (even the teenagers), and they don’t have fully formed brains yet.

For example, according to this article, “while adults can to use rational decision making processes when facing emotional decisions, adolescent brains are simply not yet equipped to think through things in the same way. For example, when deciding whether to ride in a car driven by a drunk friend, an adult can usually put aside her desire to conform and is more likely to make the rational decision against drunk driving. However, a teenager’s immature frontal lobes may not be capable of such a coolly rational approach, and the emotional feelings of friendship may be likely to win the battle.”

Are you interested in learning how CUES can help your school with de-escalation strategies? Our consultants can help develop professional development opportunities to meet your needs. Contact us to learn more.

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