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Discipline is not punishment

As a pre-service teacher, I worked in an elementary classroom that had a Green-Yellow-Red disciplinary system that went something like this: Yellow and red cards were handed out for infractions. Two yellow equaled a red. Students who had received two red cards during the week were not allowed to partake in the end-of-the-week “fun day” activities.

The system ticked all the boxes of our traditional conceptions of fair discipline: Students had multiple chances before consequences were imposed, teachers shared a common system for handling misbehavior throughout the school, and students could all explain what the system was.

The trouble was, the students who weren’t struggling didn’t need the system. If they misbehaved, a minor correction or redirect was all it took. Their infractions rarely rose to the level of a yellow card, much less a red. Several students in the class, though, were precluded from “fun day” activities nearly every week and were sometimes rendered ineligible by Monday afternoon. One student, I’ll call him G, had two red cards before entering the classroom one Monday morning, the result of two early morning incidents on the playground. Imagine the rest of that week.

Why couldn’t G - who would become distraught about missing “fun day” – pull it together? It was frustrating. In the moment of his misbehavior, you simply could not reason with him. Often a sweet and friendly nine-year-old, he was a different child in those moments, swearing, overturning desks, storming from the room. I know now that G was in survival-brain mode and that our attempts to reason with him and remind him of his larger goals were doomed to failure. G didn’t know what caused him to lose control, and he didn’t have the skills to know how to regain it once it was lost.

Discipline and punishment are too often conflated, with the result that disciplinary policies become a list of infractions and ever-increasing consequences. (As noted in the blog a few weeks ago, in addition to being ineffective, these systems are often inherently and grossly inequitable.) Students are expected to exert “self-control” and if they don’t exert that self-control, we think there must be a price to pay else chaos and misbehavior will reign supreme. But what G (among others) was missing was the ability to recognize the stressors that caused his brain to enter survival mode, that state where he lost his ability to be “reasonable.” Once there, he had no ability to exert self-control, and threats of increasing punishments were counter-productive[1]. As Stuart Shanker notes, "Self-control is about inhibiting impulses; self-regulation is about identifying the causes and reducing the intensity of impulses and, when necessary, having the energy to resist."

Without the ability to regulate his own nervous system, G was at the mercy of his survival-brain reactions to stress.

Effective discipline begins before anything has gone wrong

In her book, Connections over Compliance, Laurie Desautels (an Assistant Professor at Butler University who – wonderfully - also works in an elementary classroom) proposes a brain-aligned approach to discipline that: shifts the focus from “coercive regulation” to co-regulation; is enacted throughout the day through structures, routines, and moments for students to connect to their feelings and their bodies; and begins with well-regulated adults. An adult who is not regulated cannot help a child regulate. Similarly, an adult who doesn’t recognize that emotions are contagious, may begin to mirror the out-of-control student, resorting to harsh words or postures when experiencing a student’s actions as disrespect.

Desautels describes many specific ways that preventative discipline can be embedded into daily routines, noting that the first tier of preventative discipline “happens through our procedures, routines, transitions, morning and afternoon rituals, and through sensory regulation and touchpoints with our students.” Struggling students learn how to use “routines of regulation” (made up of a myriad of strategies and activities that are described in great detail in the book and on her website). With the help and guidance of calm, co-regulating adults, students discover what they can do to help themselves feel calmer, and they learn to identify what dysregulates them, a critical step. In Desautels’ classroom, students create their own personal routines of regulatory strategies – before there is a problem – and co-regulating adults are always modeling and discussing a variety of strategies. Routines might include breath or movement or “sensation drawing,” visiting the classroom’s Amygdala Reset Station, or going to talk to a trusted adult. They might choose a calming activity from a “Stress Menu” or make a visit to their Wise Self. Students have agency in determining which strategies are most helpful to them.

Importantly, brain-aligned discipline does not suggest that there are no consequences for misbehavior:

“There are still consequences for poor choices but regulating the feelings and sensations that a student experiences is the initial step, one that is critical for sustainable change in behavior. Staying connected through the conflict is so exhausting, but critical! Brain-aligned consequences need to be meaningful, not arbitrary.” (page 101)

Brain-aligned discipline starts from the positive premise that students want to do well, want to be in control, and want to succeed.

That starting point is more critical now than ever before.

As students return to classrooms in the wake of COVID-19, many will be traumatized and dysregulated. Recent reporting suggests a mental health crisis among students who are experiencing increased anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation. In Clark County, Nevada, the suicide rate among students has more than doubled since the period before the shutdowns. Over the same period, in many areas of the country, reports of child abuse and neglect have plummeted, though we know that incidents of abuse and neglect are more likely to be skyrocketing. When these students return to classrooms, they may exhibit behaviors that look like withdrawal or inattention or not showing up; or, it may look like clowning around, disrespect, or rage. As Desautels notes, “The students who need the most connection and understanding will ask for it in the most unloving ways.”

Students need us. Connections that have been broken – or that never existed – need to be reestablished, and students need to learn how to metabolize and process the adverse experiences that keep their brains and bodies in a state of flight, fight, and freeze.

This will be a long process, a marathon not a sprint as they say, but we have an opportunity to replace the traditional notions of rules and consequences that weren’t needed by some students and didn’t work for the others, with a system that creates connections and resilience - and actually leads to positive and sustainable change.


[1] A fascinating tidbit from Stuart Shanker’s Self Reg: “…discoveries are being made by molecular biologists about the functions that get turned off in fight or flight. For example, sudden, pitched stress affects the muscles in the inner ear, reducing the child's ability to process speech…” I think now that G quite literally could not hear us.

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