Discipline and Punishment

There are certain beliefs that are so ingrained in our society that few ever question them. One is that adults, being bigger and older, have the right to ‘control’ children. In times gone by this came through sayings like – ‘children should be seen and not heard’. It’s in the nature of power that those with it control and dictate compliance to those who have none or less of it.

Next – through sayings like ‘spare the rod and spoil the child’ we see the workings of the belief that the ‘discipline’ required in a child will only come about through control, coercion and even ultimately the use of punishment – whether that be physical or mental. In this day and age it is, to my mind, rather extraordinary that there are states in the US where the right to physically chastise/ punish/ assault (!) children is still given to teachers in schools. I believe the more enlightened places are the European countries where it’s made very clear that physical punishment of a child by anyone (including parents) is illegal.

There are all sorts of reasons why use of physical force against children should no longer be accepted in society. These include the fact that brutalized children are more likely to be violent to their peers, such use of violence is more about lack of anger control on the part of the adult than punishing the child. But, the biggest reason is that all the evidence tells us very strongly that it just plain doesn’t work. Where it may produce ‘acceptable behaviour’ as compliance, all evidence suggests that when the fear of the punishment isn’t there the behaviour is no more likely to be replicated.

I’m well aware that there are cultural elements to the attitudes on this, but what we have to understand is that as more evidence is built about psychology, and especially child psychology, the more willing people must be to challenge cultural orthodoxies. There are cultures within which the belief is that whether children or adults people need to be pressured to do right and that positive behaviour only happens in the face of potential punishment. These are the people who applaud the rigid and forceful laws and policing in places like Singapore. I personally subscribe to a belief that with the right moral compass and positive habits people will do right because it is right without the need for fear or coercion.

Discipline is a big issue in schools. Where there is weak discipline too many children are acting in ways that can prevent others from having a fair opportunity to learn as they want and need. In the worst cases it can make school a dangerous place when poor discipline manifests in peer to peer violence or bullying. Many seek to maintain discipline through fear of punishments, through control and also by organising learning activities in such a way that students are regimented, docile and passive – making it easier to control discipline. However, we know that this is not the best way to learn. We also know that it doesn’t lead to the best learning of self discipline, but instead can lead to a sullen, pseudo-compliance and fake obedience – we do what you demand while you’re watching us, but you can’t be watching us all the time.

Here are two interesting articles. Whilst both are written from the perspective of parents and discipline in the home, there’s much that is relevant for teachers and schools when thinking about how to maintain positive, healthy climates around discipline. The first comes from a parenting website, the second from The Atlantic.

Creative Child – The Messages Behind Discipline

The Atlantic – No Spanking, No Time Outs, No Problems

The common message coming through both articles is accentuating and praising the behaviour we want to see, rather than seeking to punish the behaviour we don’t want. Ultimately, I believe that we have to have both a short and long term perspective. When there is behaviour that is inappropriate, it needs to be dealt with/ redirected in the short term. However, we also need to have in mind the far more significant long term desire to have our children grow up to be self-directed and self disciplined – in other words, to do right and to behave in ways that are fair, reasonable and in both their own and others’ best interests by choice and free will – not because of bullying conditioning, fear or punishment.

The latter article is not only interesting in its own right. It’s a measure of how emotive these issues are and how much emotional baggage is attached related to people’s own childhood and upbringing that the comments section has so many responses and many of them express strong emotions. This is even the case from grown adults who were victims of cruel and bullying punishment and discipline as children. Their emotions are clear from their comments and some clearly have carried scars and mental harm long in to adulthood.

Whether we are parents or educators responsibility for a child is a massive and weighty responsibility that we must take very seriously. Our words and actions towards the child will have a significant impact on the adult they will be later. In these circumstances, we must always be reflective, candid and careful to make ourselves well informed, to hold ourselves accountable and to take our duty very seriously. We’re not perfect. We will have days we get it right and days we make mistakes. However, our children deserve that we are always striving to be better, to guide them better to the right behaviours in ways that nourish, enrich and equip them. And, as I’ve said on many occasions the least starting point is – do no harm.

School Entry Age and ADHD

Medical News Today – School Entry Age May Impact Risk Of ADHD Diagnosis

There are few things scarier for a parent of an early years school pupil than when they are called up by their child’s school to come and discuss behavioural issues and the suggestion is made to get them reviewed by a clinical specialist. and even worse when that leads to a diagnosis and medication for ADHD. Sadly, this has been the plight of an ever growing number of children, particularly in the US.

I think all should find the data shared in this article quite startling and food for contemplation and introspection. What it suggests, pretty strongly is that in many cases, especially concerning younger children these diagnoses are coming about for little more reason than the fact of which month the child was born in, especially if it is a boy.

This has to be added to all the other evidence (for example, see Malcolm Gladwell’s ‘Outliers’) about the impact on children because of the continued arbitrary way that is educators we choose to divide them up simplistically according to there birth date throughout the education world. As time goes on, there is less and less justification for this, and more and more reasons why we should be showing the courage to explore alternatives for how classes are formed and how decisions are made about who is schooled alongside who.

When children are under the age of 8 or 9 their development is so erratic, but also in the development phases so rapid that differences of just a few months can make a big difference. Children are likely to intuitively feel those differences, but not necessarily understand them. In such circumstances, there is a strong chance that they will act out in certain ways when they feel that somehow they’re not matching up to expectations and the experiences of the rest of their class. To think that this could ultimately lead to misdiagnosis and children being wrongly drugged is quite shocking.

Make Reading Cool For Boys

There comes an age at which boys today seem to decide that books and reading are not ‘cool enough’ and even the most enthusiastic reader may just switch off completely – with all the implications that go with that. I’ve seen this myself, both with my own son, but also with many other boys. Somehow, the perception is that books and magazines (or even online text, e-books etc) can’t compete with the ultra-stimulation of games, video and other choices for how time is spent.

In my son’s experience one of the issues was that he moved very quickly through all the good quality reading material that appealed to him, but by the time he reached around age 13 there was very little left that attracted him. How many times can you read the same Harry Potter books over and over again? As a parent, to watch someone who was streets ahead of his peers at a skill as valuable as reading then basically spinning his wheels as they all slowly caught him up – an advantage turned in to nothing special.

Here’s an interesting article that explores ways that can be tried to get boys to want to engage with reading:

Early to Rise – How To Get Boys To Read
(Click on the link to read the article. Incidentally, the Early to Rise newsletter emails are well worth signing up for – I’ve been reading them for quite a few years and they’re amongst the best around)

It tends to be the case that the vast majority of school libraries have female librarians. I think, at times, they need to have a greater variety of approaches if they are to make libraries and reading appeal to the boys. I agree very strongly with the article that we need a much broader acceptability of what kids are reading and to meet boys’ needs with material that they find stimulating and will want to read. It doesn’t pay to get too judgmental about what they choose to read!

Finally, I think the article’s spot on – if there’s cool status associated with reading, then there’s a much better chance that more boys will stay with it – with all the benefits that flow out of that. I know how much reading has benefited my life. I cannot ever envisage being anything other than a reader. But, I also know that’s no great advert to a 14 year old boy! However, meeting them where they are, we can do a much better job for them.

Cramming For Exams

The world over, the imminent approach of formal, standardised examinations has the potential to cause the flight of rationality and reason on the part of students, parents and (dare I say it) even sometimes teachers.

I’ve often said that whilst cutting educators some slack, we also have to take responsibility and remember to always have our guard up against the pernicious impact of our past. We are all ourselves products of the education systems of the past. Our school experiences as children impacted us at the most impressionable time in our lives. As a result, whilst today’s educators may learn, be trained in and practice all sorts of new perspectives, ways of doing things and practices based on the latest in psychological and neuroscience awareness when stress takes over it’s all too easy to resort to doing things the way they were, the way they were familiar when we were children.

Today, we all talk in terms of wanting or children to be lifelong learners, to own their own learning, to take responsibility and to acquire, learn and master skills of time management, planning, strategising and approaching the learning process with a long term perspective. A lot more is known than 40 years or so ago about how learning happens best and what works (and what doesn’t). Yet, across the world, if we were a fly on the wall outside exam halls 10 minutes before the doors open to admit the students, we would see school or college students hunched over notes or even sometimes the textbook in the hope of squeezing some last few morsels of knowledge in to their brains in the hope of extracting a little extra in marks from the exam. Many students almost feel that if they’re not doing this, not stressing, then somehow they risk being seen as not caring enough about the outcome of the exam – in the eyes of others or themselves.

In the weeks running up to the exams all parties join in with this stress momentum. All too often, educators unfortunately give students all the evidence they ever needed to believe that we’ve been deceiving them all along. We never really meant it when we said that they owned their own learning. We never really meant it when we said that learning was a marathon and not a sprint. We never meant it when we said we trusted them.

Instead, the adults start making decisions and imposing them on the students. One of the most common is the imposition of revision classes, cram sessions or whatever else we want to call them.

Here’s a perspective on this from a blog post of a concerned UK teacher;

The Guardian – Secret Teacher – Last Minute Revision Classes Do More Harm Than Good

I do believe there’s a duty on us, as educators, before jettisoning these habits and trends of the past to ensure that we are doing the right things all year around with our students. That includes, making the learning meaningful, guiding them to be self-motivating, self-organising and working from a position of proper understanding of how their own minds work. Students who see their learning as something they’re doing for themselves, motivated because they see how it contributes to their long term goals and working sensibly with skill and finesse don’t need us to doubt them in those critical final weeks. Rather, they need us to be reinforcing our faith in them, letting them know that if they need help or inputs we’re there for them, but that we have faith in them to deliver to their full potential.

Delivering great results doesn’t start in those last few weeks before exams. That’s true for a student, for a parent, a teacher or a whole school. Therefore, if we’ve all been doing the right things in the right ways, it’s vital that we resist knee-jerk behaviours in those final weeks that can actually undermine the great work.

Maybe our mantra should be – if it looks, sounds, feels, smells or tastes like when we went to school, we should probably STOP doing it !!!

More Creativity, Please.

In our schools – at least the more progressive ones – we tell children that we want them to be creative and that creativity is a vital skill to grow up with. However, I believe we don’t do nearly enough to explore with children what creativity is, where it comes from/ manifests and how a person can develop a higher quantity/ quality of creativity. It’s almost treated as ‘you’ll know it when you see it.’ Further, i think all too often, the actions of the adults in our schools frequently send conflicting messages. On the one hand children are told that creativity is a good thing, but on the other hand when they choose to be creative or to act creatively in the way of their choosing, this is actively discouraged or sometimes even punished.

The reality is that one person’s creativity can often sit uncomfortably with others. Creativity, by its nature doesn’t run along neat pre-set lines like a train running on tracks. Rather, it has a random and uncontrolled aspect to it and this is likely to be even more the case for a child within whom their creativity and it’s counter-balancing elements of self-control are still developing.

Another issue is that a person’s creativity requires an element of separation and distancing from others. The reality today is that the more progressive a school is, likely the more students are encouraged to be actively engaged with their peers through projects, group work or even pair work or peer tutoring. Introvert habits of isolating the self fro others are frequently actively discouraged. Here’s a very interesting article that explores the role of isolation and solitude in creativity.

Lifehacker – Is Solitude A Key Element Of Creativity?

It makes a number of references to the work of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and I would thoroughly recommend his book on creativity for anyone who wants to delve further in to this area.

I believe that, as in so many things, balance is the key. We need school premises and infrastructure that provides for both group and individual space and activity. We need to build the flexibility and balance in to timetables to ensure that students have the freedom to be with themselves, to explore inside as well as to work in groups and collaborate. And, we need educators who understand the balanced needs of both interpersonal activity and solitude. We need to actively help children to understand how this aspect of their mind works, the role and value of daydreaming and we need to respect when they open up and share the material of their daydreams. To acknowledge isn’t to agree.

My guess is that, right now, in most schools we’re probably doing a better job of the engagement and busy activity of projects and group work than we are of the solitary aspects of creativity. Both are needed to develop key citical skills for the Twenty First Century.

Leaders For Education

Lots of research has suggested that when you look at the impact of leaders (i.e. their propensity to determine the difference between OK and great organisational outcomes), school leaders (Principals, Heads etc.) have a bigger impact than leaders of equivalent seniority in companies and commercial environments.

So, it has long been a concern of mine when we see education leadership development as such a weak area. I believe that there are underlying assumptions that are not helping. Perhaps the biggest is that if you take teachers who show good people skills, willingness to work longer and harder and teach them a few basic skills, they will be ready and able to step up to become leaders.

This US article shows that there are initiatives that acknowledge that more is needed;

Washington Post – Wallace Foundation To Invest $47 million In Redesigning Principal Preparation

This is positive, but worldwide there’s far more needed. This includes both on and off-job change. On the job, schools and school organisations need to learn far more from the commercial world about identifying future talent for development and how to support them outside the interests of their immediate leaders as ‘whole organisation’ long term assets.

In the long term, better prepared leaders will lead to better schools, to the benefit of all stakeholders.

Get Outside!

Here’s a report which, whilst initially shocking, is not really at all surprising;

TES – Sir Ken Robinson Urges Schools To Help Increase Outdoor Playtime For Children

We can only begin to imagine what the implications are from this in terms of both physical and mental health. I even find myself wondering whether this has a whole set of implications that I and many others haven’t thought through yet. many in the medical field have suggested that, as science and medicine have moved forward, today’s generation of young children is the first with the potential to live a life beyond 100 years. What if the result of mistakes in childhood lifestyle, diet, exposure to sun and lack of physical exercise mean that they are actually the first generation that will see a shorter lifespan than those older.

There is no excuse for this. It shouldn’t happen. Do we have the willpower and the sense to arrest the negative trends?

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