The Treasure Hunter

A blog by Joanne Yatvin

The Other Side of the Discipline Coin

on May 10, 2016

Today’s post, written by my granddaughter, needs no explanation.  I just want to say I am pleased that she is learning how to practice the sort of teacher behavior I have long advocated.

I work part-time in the discipline office of an overcrowded elementary school.  Over 90% of our students are of color, many of whom receive free or reduced lunch. If you asked me on a weekend, or at the beginning of most school days, I would explain my idealistic beliefs: all children are bright, funny and kind, but some have a harder time showing those redemptive qualities. They defend their insecurities by acting overly tough, being verbally disrespectful to adults or physically reactive to their peers.

Yet, there are times when my idealistic beliefs yield to my practical, and very real, frustration. As I see the same students day in and day out, I think: why do I need to have this conversation  with Caitlin again about controlling her body? Why is Jay shutting down right now when he needs to listen? Maurice was in the office twenty minutes ago for shouting at a teacher; why is he here again for talking back?

One of those ‘frequent flyers,’ we’ll call him Willie, rarely smiles and is difficult to de-escalate. Since the beginning of school this year Willie has been sent to the discipline office for talking back to teachers, fighting, and actively disrupting his class. Willie is clearly tough and, accordingly, I have always handled him with the same intensity. When Willie fights with another student, I am stern and hold him accountable for his actions.

Last week, however, Willie came into the office in tears. A person in one of his classes had said, “If you continue to act like that, you’re going to end up in prison.” Instead of shouting back or using his fists, Willie walked out of the classroom, came to the discipline office, sat down and cried. It became clear that all adults in the school, myself included, had been handling Willie in the way he had always been treated, but not necessarily in the way he needed at the moment. At the end of the day, I hand delivered this note to him:


I wanted to write you a letter to let you know how much you are appreciated at school. I remember you telling a friend all of your favorite things about school. You said that you liked art class, gym class, computers, your friends, math, reading and writing. This tells me that you are a very smart young man who is gifted and can be successful in whatever you put your mind to.

I also told you last week, how impressed I was that you came up with a reasonable consequence for your behavior after you and another student had a fight. This demonstrates to all the staff that you have the ability to be fair and mature.

Thank you for being a wonderful part of our community! Keep making the good choices you know how to make.

Ms. Bonnie

My job frequently requires me to reflect upon one of my favorite operettas, The Mikado, in which Gilbert and Sullivan highlighted the concept of fairness: “Let the punishment fit the crime.” In my work that means telling Kellie to go fetch ice for the student she punched in the face. It also means assisting Jimmy as he researches Ruby Bridges, and writes about why one shouldn’t use racist language in school.

Sometimes, however, the only crime is that a student has been long deprived of  positive reinforcement and needs someone to see the good side of him.

One response to “The Other Side of the Discipline Coin

  1. Don Bellairs says:

    When I helped start the P.A.C.E.S. program at the American School for the Deaf (CT) in the ’80’s, we used point sheets and required students to record positive and negative behaviors. For every negative behavior that we observed as staff. we had to find 10 positive behaviors. Our PACES training (based on the Boystown program in Nebraska) took two weeks. The same training applied universally in American schools would dramatically reform our ability to educate kids who are traditionally ignored and/or disproportionately disciplined in public schools.
    You don’t even need the point sheets. You just need to learn that kids are doing a lot more good than bad if you are looking.


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