The elementary and middle school context puts a very powerful and distinctive lens on the idea of “discipline.” Children of all ages make mistakes. They break things, hurt feelings, step on people’s toes, and in so many other ways cross lines in terms of community expectations – sometimes in small ways, sometimes in bigger ways. Based on what we know about brain development for this age group, it’s important to keep in mind that often, the answer to the question “What WERE you thinking??” is exactly this: they weren’t thinking. Or, more precisely, they don’t know how to think about this particular aspect of human relations – yet.
…it seems important to recognize that while there may also be a place for consequences, the most important aspect of discipline needs to be the teaching that helps children not only understand why a certain action or behavior is unacceptable, but how to grow beyond the mistake, recognizing and restoring the damage they have caused and re-enter the community with confidence.
The word “discipline” is often linked with the idea of punishment. The word, however, draws from the Latin discipulus, which means “student.” The mission of discipline, therefore, is really to teach. The notion of punishment seems to enter in, however, because that teaching often seeks to encourage people to adhere to codes of behavior, or habits of mind – expectations aligning with the way we expect people to treat others. With this in mind, it seems important to recognize that while there may also be a place for consequences, the most important aspect of discipline needs to be the teaching that helps children not only understand why a certain action or behavior is unacceptable, but how to grow beyond the mistake, recognizing and restoring the damage they have caused and re-enter the community with confidence.
In recent years, Park’s Upper Division disciplinary program has focused on restorative practices. “Restoration” needs to happen on several levels. First, how might the child come to understand why or how their actions created harm? Second, how might the child approach thinking about what they will do the next time they come to a similar intersection? What choices would they make? Finally, how might they gain the sense of agency to repair the relationship or trust that was broken so that they can feel successful returning to their community. The big difference between traditional discipline and restorative practices is in making amends and repairing harm–working to attend to the needs of the person harmed AND the one who caused harm.
At the root of all this is a culture built on care. The student comes to care about the harm they have caused, and to accept the consequences along with the agency to make the necessary repair – and then to move forward. Restorative practices emphasize the importance of care, reflection, and agency at every stage along the way.
Students who enter into the restoration process with a Day of Reflection, for example, begin with a day on campus where they can engage in thoughtful reflection on their own and in conversation with others. Over the course of the day, division leaders, teachers, advisors, and the head of school stop in for a discussion geared to help students consider their actions, the damage they have caused, how they might repair the harm caused, and how to return to their normal schedule. The conversations are candid, yet supportive, guided by Park’s care for each student’s growth and learning. Depending on the circumstances, there may be other decisions and consequences discussed, yet the intended outcome is the same: giving the student the tools, the agency, and the understanding to move beyond their mistakes in community with others.
A child’s ability to accept consequences is a skill right up there with self-advocacy.
We seek to be very transparent about this – our policies and expectations are clear. We are, however, private about the actual disciplinary process, what is said, done, and what the consequences are. We do this so that there can be room for repair, and for learning – learning that would be short-circuited if the situation devolves immediately into labeling, public shame, and rejection. That doesn’t mean there aren’t consequences. A child’s ability to accept consequences is a skill right up there with self-advocacy. It’s learning to see oneself within the social context, understanding both what we need for ourselves and what we owe to others.
I am always impressed with how students respond to the process, conversations, and most importantly, ownership of their behavior and its impact. When given the opportunity to think and consider, the children realize the importance of pausing “for their brains to catch up with their feelings” and to realize that if there is a next time, they they have the power and control to make better choices.
The artist of this piece is Oliver G., 23