Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Two Steps Back Part III: Good Behavior Must Be Taught

In two previous posts, I have discussed at length the problems we are experiencing with Machon--N.'s religious education. And you may be wondering, well, what do you think ought to be done about it? Besides this:

"...No more committees but only picnics and orgies
and dances. I have spoken. So be it forevermore."
Marge Piercy, The Report of the Fourteenth Subcommittee on Convening a Discussion Group

I mean picnics and dances are probably a good idea, once in a while. But orgies? Definitely not an activity likely to be acceptable in a religious school!

What I propose is a model of old-fashioned discipline, a system called Positive Behavior Supports. Although this sounds slightly politically correct, another fad out of the schools of education, it is really just 'educationese' for the development of a comprehensive disciplinary set of rules that govern a school, and the methodology used to teach the students proper behavior. In reality it is as 'old as the hills,' something that every teacher in the one-room schoolhouses on the prairie knew: in order to get good behavior from pupils, a teacher must establish a clear set of rules and classroom procedures, teach the students these rules and procedures, and then visit consequences on those pupils who do not choose to follow the rules and procedures.

There is one difference between the teacher in the one-room schoolhouse and teachers today, however. In those days, the teacher could be fairly certain that children would come to school having learned rules and procedures for polite behavior and smooth family living at home. Those teachers only needed to tweak the rules and procedures to fit the classroom.

Unfortunately, in our own day, many of the children starting school have not been raised by their own parents in the their own homes, but by underpaid and overworked daycare staffers who may have found it more expedient to do for the kids, rather than teach them how to do for themselves. Or even worse, children in low-quality facilities may be somewhat neglected in the area of discipline altogether. To make matters worse, kindergarten, which used to be the place where children were systematically taught the rules and procedures for working well in a classroom, has become academic and such lessons are assumed to have been taught in the pre-school or daycare. But in reality, they may not have been taught at all. Not in early childhood, not in elementary school, and not in middle school or high school.

There have also been changes in the way that children are being raised by their parents in our culture. Many parents do not maintain consistent, well-thought out discipline in the home for their children. For at least one whole generation, and part of another, children have been seen as friends and companions for many parents, and the relationship of the parent as teacher of the child has been neglected. This has consequences on what a child knows about his or her place in the world, and about discipline when they come to school or other public places. It is not my intention to disparage parents here, many of whom are doing the best they can with the tools they have been taught; rather it is my purpose to point out that we can discuss who should be responsible until the cows come home, but it will still be necessary for a teacher to teach more than content if a well-ordered classroom environment is desired.

An aside: I have noticed that homeschooled children, by and large, are much more likely to have been taught good manners and discipline by their parents. I have rarely experienced a homeschool child without them. I suspect that a parent is more bound to be more committed to this than anyone else, since parents have the greatest interest in good results in all areas.

Now, when a school or other educational setting has a system of Positive Behavior Supports in place, it is relatively easy to introduce the little ones just starting out to the rules and procedures, because the rest of the group, administrators, teachers, staff, and older students are, for the most part, modeling the good behavior. It is true that most kids will, at one time or another, challenge the rules and procedures, but if the child has been consistently taught, and has seen good behavior modeled, and has been given consequences for poor behavior, then correcting this is not that difficult. It is in the range of the child's experience to expect that the challenge will be met and the behavior corrected. One can expect that about 90% of children will respond well to a system of positive behavior supports. (NOTE: I say 'well' not 'perfectly.' One problem that we have in making any positive changes in our society is the tendency to make the perfect the enemy of the good. No child is ever going to behave perfectly. We are striving to get good behavior consistently, not perfect behavior).

However, there are real problems in implementing Positive Behavior Supports in a situation like that of Machon. There, the students are teenagers who have grown to expect inconsistent discipline or none at all, in that environment. Some may also not have been taught polite manners toward their peers and adults in other settings, such as home and/or school. In my experience as a teacher in a private school, many of the parents themselves lacked good manners in their behavior towards faculty and staff, and encouraged the same in their children. Some parents also found ways to protect their children from the consequences of poor behavior, which had some disasterous results as the children reached the age of majority. At any rate, it is more difficult to unteach poor behavior in a certain setting than it would have been to teach good behavior in the first place. The kids in Machon have had a number of years in which they have learned to work the system, getting out of any consequences for bad behavior.

An institution in the situation that Machon is in cannot expect quick response or magical changes. This does not mean that Positive Behavior Supports will not work. It does mean that it must be consistently applied for a longer period of time, and the principles must be modeled not only for the students, but for the parents in their interactions with the teachers and staff. Teachers and staff must be supported in their efforts to consistently apply the rules and procedures. Although this is not a zero-tolerance type of strategy, the rules and procedures must be applied fairly to all. If the "powers that be" find ways to make exceptions for particular parents, the strategy will fail.

Personally, I believe that Positive Behavior Supports would be a good way to go for Machon and the entire religious school at our synagogue. It would require training teachers and staff, and consistent, non-egoizing support from the clergy and adminstrators. However, in my experience with the system there, it seems they go for the quick-fix, like the arbitrary 'kick 'em' out rule outlined in the letter. There was a pretty good system of discipline outlined in the parent handbook at the beginning of the year. It failed for lack of being used in the difficult cases. This new rule will fail regardless of whether it becomes a one-strike-and-you're-out policy or a revolving door, because there is no consistent set of rules and procedures, no method for teaching the desired behavior, and the misbehavior is not well defined, which means that the kids and parents can continue to work the system.

Still, one can hope!
Next time, I am going to outline what a Positive Behavior Supports system might look like in the Machon setting.


Amie said...

I think homeschooling gives extra incentive to teach your children how to behave properly since they are with you ALL the time :)

Crimson Wife said...

What really annoys me is when other adults undermine my trying to teach my kids manners. They'll excuse poor behavior and say things like "that's okay, he/she doesn't have to apologize." HELLO???? If I don't nip the problem in the bud when they're young, how are they ever going to learn proper conduct? I don't think I'm unduly strict to expect them to practice basic manners from an early age. And I sure don't appreciate it when other grownups interfere with that teaching!

Elisheva Hannah Levin said...

Amie, I think you do have a point there! But I also think that homeschooled kids spend a fair amount of time with people who are not their exact age, so they get to see appropriate social behavior modeled in a variety of settings.

Crimson Wife, I have seen this with adults interacting with other adults, too. Even when an apology is about something rather serious, the response, especially from women is, "Oh, that's okay."
I wonder if many people have confusion between dismissing a wrong and forgiving it, when they are really two very different things! When I need to apologize--and being that I am human, it happens--I'd much rather be met with, "I appreciate the apology and I do forgive you," than "Oh, that's okay." If it were "okay" then I wouldn't need to be apologizing.

Kimberlee said...

Yes! Yes! Yes! I'm a little behind in your discussion, but am thrilled with the points you are making as I get to them! :)

Clear expectations and consistency are (in my opinion) absolute essentials in any educational setting. People often confuse a disciplined approach with cruelty, but that couldn't be further from the truth! When a fair approach to discipline is in place, students actually relax...they feel safe. Not just physically safe, but emotionally safe too. They know what to expect and what will or will not be tolerated. In chaotic situations, kids feel anxious. Even very strong-willed children who constantly "push the envelope" would REALLY rather be in a place where someone capable is in charge.

Oh, and that undermining interference thing? My principal does that to me with my students ALL THE TIME. It makes me crazy.