What Are We Learning?

Submitted by Adrian Garsia
Teacher, parent, Positive Discipline Trainer

For a long time I have wondered why Positive Discipline is more successful in some classrooms than others, why do some teachers and schools embrace it and others reject it. Why do systems based on rewards (and punishment) thrive? Why do I embrace Positive Discipline and at other times reject it? Why do I resort to things that look like punishment with students and why do I consider rewards when I feel really stuck?

For those of you that don’t know me, I am a parent of two children in their teens and also a schoolteacher with 25 first and second graders. I don’t like feeling out of control or being seen as someone who doesn’t know what they are doing. I care about what others think about me. Of course, since I work hard, much of what I do goes pretty well. But when things don’t go well or as predicted I can get pretty uncomfortable and that is when I notice myself responding to others in a way that is more controlling and less respectful or trusting. Engaged students

For the first six weeks of the school year, my class and I created and practiced the Daily Five Language Arts routines so that students can work independently while my aide and I have reading groups. We practiced these routines, reflected on how we were doing, and brainstormed what we needed in order to do better. By mid-October students were able to work for 30 minutes independently while I ran reading groups. Of course things did not go perfectly. Sometimes students talk instead of working or distract others instead of doing their own work. At those times I feel the knot in my stomach growing and I interrupt my reading group to redirect students, tell them that we needed to meet at recess or glare and growl at them to get back to work. Meanwhile my reading group gets bored waiting so they start talking and the situation spirals.

One day after a particularly difficult session I was feeling frustrated and annoyed because I had not been able to teach my reading group. I called the class to the carpet to reflect on how our work time had gone. When I asked the class for ideas on what would help us do better, students suggested that I remind them to go back on task! I told them that I wanted them to remind themselves so I could teach my reading groups. I wanted them to control their own behavior. Then it occurred to me to ask, “For how many of you is controlling yourself something new that you are just learning?” A third of my class raised their hands!

In that moment my whole thinking completely shifted. I felt a wave of compassion and patience well up in me. I remembered that they were young and just learning. We are learning how to work together as a class. I understood that this type of work and learning does not happen overnight. I didn’t feel annoyed or frustrated or scared about what others would think. I felt like taking up our work again of figuring out what was needed for all of us to do better.

I remembered insights I had gained from problem solving with individual students about why they struggled during work time. They didn’t have books at their new reading level, they got stuck on a work that they didn’t know how to spell, they were having a hard time at home and just really needed a friend, they didn’t know what to write or they had finished what they had set out to do and didn’t know what to do next. Punishment, rewards and growling and scowling at them wouldn’t fix any of these problems. And with the constant reminding, it’s no wonder that my students have to come to expect reminders.

When things don’t go the way I planned and I get that knot in my stomach I often resort to control and reminding. I behave in a manner that actually undermines my students’ ability to develop self-control because I step in and remind them. My jumping in might give me some immediate relief but won’t really help them in the long run. I think I could do better if I worked on having greater tolerance of feeling out of control and if I could resist the impulse to react and instead refocus myself.

Next week I plan to teach reading groups with my back to my class, so I am focusing on my small group instead of what the class is doing. For some people this may sound crazy…turn my back? Won’t things really go nuts then? But if I don’t give them chances and time to practice managing themselves how will they learn? How will they learn self-control if I don’t give them chances to wrestle with it? If things are not working I can always stop the work time and we can brainstorm what we need to do together.

That is fundamentally different than my jumping away from my reading group to put out fires. This approach requires me to develop a tolerance for the feelings that are stirred up in me when things don’t go well and choose respectful ways of working on solutions. Turning my back won’t be the only thing that I do. I will continue to work on providing the support that students need: books at the appropriate level and practice on getting un-stuck etc.

Positive Discipline has helped me develop a practice of looking more deeply at behavior, my own especially. Often while preparing to teach other teachers I’ve wondered what is most essential to share. Today I really see the great value of building tolerance for the discomfort we feel when things don’t go as planned and resisting the urge to control. I see the value of meeting students where they are.