There’s the classic saying, “If it’s not broken, don’t fix it.” Well, it would be great if everything wasn’t broken, but many times that’s just not the reality. But I also don’t buy the opposite here – that if it’s broken, fix it. Instead, I prefer to say, “If it’s broken, don’t merely fix it; change it.”
Let’s talk discipline, behavior, and classroom management. Walk into any school and it’s more likely than not that the discipline system focuses on fixing behavior – getting rid of a disruptive behavior in the moment but not changing future behavior. While this system provides immediate intervention to a disruptive behavior, it fails to teach students how to make better choices and improve as people, as human beings. Since educators are charged with developing young people, we need to take a bolder approach to discipline.
Where in your consequences are students really reflecting on the choices they made and how to make better ones?
So what does this difference between fixing behavior and changing behavior actually look like? It starts with high expectations and a discipline system that enables you to intervene early and fairly without warning, utilizing choice language in the process.
There are four key components to behavior changing:
1. Intervene early: Addressing misbehavior early, no matter how minor it may be, allows you to set the tone of no nonsense. Not even the smallest interruption is accepted in this class. In the process, it teaches students that their time is so crucial, that there isn’t a minute to waste. It helps students change their instinct to talk or cut up.
2. Intervene fairly: Spending time thoughtfully dishing out a discipline and consequence system that is fair, incremental, and followed step by step each time you encounter disruption goes a long way in teaching students responsibility for their actions. It’s never a guess when a consequence comes in response to misbehavior because they know the system and they know what to expect. It helps students grow to do the right thing in the moment.
3. Without warning: This is the one that always gets the biggest raised eyebrow. Giving students a warning is equivalent to giving them a free shot each day. They do nothing to guide students to making better choices; in fact, I find them counterproductive because they send a message to students that you expect them to make poor choices and will just remind them of that each time. Particularly if you are up front about what is expected and not expected, students shouldn’t receive warnings for behaviors they know are not wise.
4. Utilizing choice language: Where in your consequences are students really reflecting on the choices they made and how to make better ones? When consequences only focus on the “what” or the negative, they leave no time to serve their purpose, which is to get students thinking about the “how” in order to change the “what”.
At my beautiful school, Memphis Catholic Middle and High School, we implement a school-wide four step discipline system that is clear as day and known to students, parents, and all involved with Memphis Catholic. Because the system and expectations are made so clear, it standardizes what can be an awfully hard thing to standardize in a classroom. No longer are there “That’s not fair!” or “But he did it too!” accusations thrown around because everyone is aware and held to the same standard. As you guessed, no warning is included in that system, thus students earn a consequence for each instance of misbehavior. The system is incremental, in that it starts very minimally and advances towards an office referral at the end, though that is often not the case because the system regularly shuts down the misbehavior in the moment while setting in place growth to change the behavior in the future.
Our 275 students are beautiful people from all across the city of Memphis and all different walks of life, yet under this system, they are held to the same high expectation of contributing to the conducive learning environment.
Our 275 students are beautiful people from all across the city of Memphis and all different walks of life, yet under this system, they are held to the same high expectation of contributing to the conducive learning environment. Labeling kids based on their behavior is another way of saying you don’t believe they can meet expectations; but we believe in each of our students’ abilities. I have watched students persevere through some tough times in a No Warning system; meeting them today, you would never think they were the “trouble kids”. I’ve looked at the reflections of students on their consequences and recognized the shift in their thinking about who is responsible for their actions and what they have learned. When you engage students in their consequences, make it meaningful, and still hold them to the expectation each and every time, they grow. We don’t just fix the broken thing, we change it.