When school kids misbehave

I really liked this article from last month about re-thinking school discipline.  It resonated with me on many levels.

Which begs the question: Does it make sense to impose the harshest treatments on the most challenging kids? And are we treating chronically misbehaving children as though they don’t want to behave, when in many cases they simply can’t? [emphasis mine]

That part above strikes me as so true.  I had a parenting epiphany about 7-8 years ago where I was threatening David with punishment by taking away his favorite thing in life (time to play is video game).  He kept misbehaving even as I threatened to take away more and more time from playing.  Then it hit me– David’s brain was literally incapable of conforming to my behavioral expectations at that moment.  Of course, David hated the prospect of not playing the game, yet he continued his misbehaving in the same way.  It struck me that he wouldn’t have continued the misbehavior unless he literally couldn’t control it.  It changed how I parent.

Just last summer, Alex (the one with autism and intellectual disability) was in a summer program and when I walked him  to pick him up they basically had him in a coercive hold and told him they wouldn’t let him go until he agreed to calm down.  But his brain was literally incapable of agreeing to calm down at that moment, because all he could think about was his need to get out of that coercive hold.  It was very frustrating to see.  Alex was not back in that program this summer.

More on the matter…

That might sound like the kind of question your mom dismissed as making excuses. But it’s actually at the core of some remarkable research that is starting to revolutionize discipline from juvenile jails to elementary schools. Psychologist Ross Greene, who has taught at Harvard and Virginia Tech, has developed a near cult following among parents and educators who deal with challenging children. What Richard Ferber’s sleep-training method meant to parents desperate for an easy bedtime, Greene’s disciplinary method has been for parents of kids with behavior problems, who often pass around copies of his books, The Explosive Child and Lost at School, as though they were holy writ.

His model was honed in children’s psychiatric clinics and battle-tested in state juvenile facilities, and in 2006 it formally made its way into a smattering of public and private schools. The results thus far have been dramatic, with schools reporting drops as great as 80 percent in disciplinary referrals, suspensions, and incidents of peer aggression. “We know if we keep doing what isn’t working for those kids, we lose them,” Greene told me. “Eventually there’s this whole population of kids we refer to as overcorrected, overdirected, and overpunished. Anyone who works with kids who are behaviorally challenging knows these kids: They’ve habituated to punishment.”

Under Greene’s philosophy, you’d no more punish a child for yelling out in class or jumping out of his seat repeatedly than you would if he bombed a spelling test. You’d talk with the kid to figure out the reasons for the outburst (was he worried he would forget what he wanted to say?), then brainstorm alternative strategies for the next time he felt that way. The goal is to get to the root of the problem, not to discipline a kid for the way his brain is wired.

“This approach really captures a couple of the main themes that are appearing in the literature with increasing frequency,” says Russell Skiba, a psychology professor and director of the Equity Project at Indiana University. He explains that focusing on problem solving instead of punishment is now seen as key to successful discipline.

I actually have cousin Ross’ book (kidding, I’m not actually related to any other Greene’s out there) on my shelf but never got around to reading it.  From my perspective, though, he’s clearly onto something and the more these ideas catch on with schools in helping kids with behavioral problems, the better.

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

7 Responses to When school kids misbehave

  1. Jon K says:

    I see your point, but what about the other kids in the class. If a student’s behavior disrupts everyone else’s ability to learn then they should be removed or placed somewhere that won’t prevent learning from occurring. I remember in high school there was a kid everyone called turrets because he literally couldn’t sit still, made irrelevant comments at inappropriate times, and was very distracting. I remember when he was in my math class and he got to the point that he literally sat there and played with Legos during the class. It was extremely distracting to everyone in the class, and I think it made us dislike him even more. I realize now he probably couldn’t help it, but at the time I just wanted him out of the class so I could learn math. Needless to say my school decided he wouldn’t be returning for the next school year, but it took an entire school year before they did anything.

    • Mika says:

      “… it took an entire school year before they did anything.” That’s the main point, innit? Punishing wouldn’t have helped, would it? Yeah, taking him out of the class for sometime would have helped his peers for sometime, but that’s no real longtime solution is it?

      My daughter started school two weeks ago. Is she already that old, omg… Her schooling takes physically place in a school which is meant for special needs education kids. There are too many kids in our neighborhood right now, the schools can’t squeeze them all in, so they decided to put them into the same school with the special ed kids although her class consists only of “normal” kids. It takes about five minutes for us to walk there so that’s very convenient. Although her “real” school is even nearer, right across the street. There


      are some pictures.

      She already was at the kindergarten at the same school. The situation was different then, at her kindergarten class was 12 “normal” kids from our ‘hood and 6 special ed kids from all over Tampere (our home town) and four teachers. There was also one more such kindergarten class. Every once in a while I took her to or went to pick her up from the kindergarten. Every once in a while i saw or heard some pupil behaving very “badly”. Never ever I heard some teacher talking or making threats about punishing the pupil. And now I’m talking about the schoolkids, 7-15 year olds.

      What I heard and saw was discussions. The teachers talked to the misbehaving kids. And they talked. And they talked. How could they do it? They had available resources. The classes are small (7-10 pupils) and there are at least two adults for one class, one is a teacher and the other is a helping hand (I don’t know what the title is in English). On the school’s website there are rules for the school and there is mentioned that if a pupil breaks these rules, the pupil can be escorted out of the class (I don’t want to write “thrown” 🙂 ). Also detention is mentioned. But also that if the rule breaking is frequent, the meeting must be summoned where there are present parent, school psychologist, principal and teacher. At the meeting the situation must be discussed and the solutions must be found.

      When it comes to kindergarten, my daughter never mentioned anything about some sort of punishment. Ok, when I think about it, she once told me that one teacher told one of the “normal” boys that he must sit still or she’ll call his mother, “The teacher was very angry”, she added.

      So what is my point? Hmm… The more resources schools get the better it is for everyone!

      • Steve Greene says:

        Good point. I didn’t know you lived in Tampere?! The only other person I know in Finland lives there. Former colleague who is a PS professor at the university there.

      • Jon K says:

        Wow this blog has readers in Finland… Who knew? Resources weren’t the issue in this case. This was at an elite prep school with a 250 million dollar endowment and tuition at the time was around 20,000 a year (it is now getting close to 60 k a year). My teacher tried talking to the kid after class, but he was just going to act the way he was. Eventually the teacher gave up and let him play with legos as that was the way he was least disruptive. The school had a very progressive attitude (except for drugs and alcohol and sex) and pretty much went with the approach of not punishing him. That resulted in him repeatedly making a fool out of himself, getting nicknamed turrets, making the other students in his class irritated with him, and it was a disruption for everyone else. I think it would have been better for him and us if the school had stepped in earlier.

      • Mika says:

        Steve, I don’t think that I have mentioned that before. I didn’t think that you knew that there is Tampere… (sorry! 🙂 ) The person must be Katri Sieberg, right?


        I met her briefly last November at the Political Science Researchers Seminar lunch break, we sat at the same table. She seemed like a very nice person and her comments at the seminar were very professional, she seemed to know what she was talking about. (For the record, I must say that I sat there first and the professors came to sit there after me. It wasn’t like I went to sit with them, no way.)

        Jon, I’ve been a reader for about 5 or 6 years, something like that. Back then I tried to understand party identification and social identity approach brought me here. ( 🙂 )

        And yes, I agree with your last sentence. Could it be that because of the tuition the school hesitated to step in? Btw, I remember you mentioning “prep school” before. I sort of knew what a “prep school” is but now I dug out the information I was lacking. Ok, we have gymnasiums and elite gymnasiums, but they’re all free and like the wikipedia entry says, their entrance is competitive and based on merit – more competition to elite g:s than to regular ones. Paying for education still sounds so weird to me, someone who has always enjoyed free education and at one point you might say that the state even paid me to study. Well, state gives money to all university students, so that’s nothing special.


      • Jon K says:

        Mika, I agree with you it is strange that some people in the US pay for secondary education. I went away to school on a scholarship because we moved to an area with terrible schools. I was lucky my dad had gone to this school when he was a kid (he lived in Prince Edward County Virginia where they actually closed the public schools for 5 years to resist racial integration).

  2. Mika says:

    Jon, well, yes, but it seems to be a part of your system. You make a financial investment to your future by paying the tuition. Here in Finland we have entry tests to universities. Those who do best at those tests get accepted. So kids nowadays take courses to prepare themselves to those tests. Private companies run courses so they might be quite expensive, the highest price that I found after quick googling was 6400 euros (over $7000). That is how our system works and it runs against the ethos of equal educational opportunities for everybody regardless their financial background but what you are going to do.

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