His newest book 20 Disciplinary Strategies for Working With Challenging Students, is the first in an upcoming series and tackles the topic of classroom discipline in the wake of the Supportive School Discipline Initiative. In this interview, Dr. Bender shares what schools should be doing in the area of discipline and why classroom meditation and restorative circles motivate him.
You start your book by saying, “This is the first truly modern book on discipline.” What did you mean by that? What does this book offer that others do not?
Under the Obama administration, for the first time in history, the Department of Justice in combination with the Department of Education sent out a letter to schools saying we need to look at racial fairness in schools, especially with in-school and out-of-school suspensions. The number of African American and Hispanic students being suspended is out of proportion with the White students. And evidence shows that out-of-school suspensions don’t do anything to help the child grow. But beyond the national initiative, there’s the understanding that 10% of the kids give 90% of the problems. You get the same individuals in principals’ offices over and over, and sooner or later educators run out of strategies. How many times can you call in a parent? We have to start looking at new strategies like the ones in my book—for example, restorative circles, morning meetings, and even mindfulness—because these things help students analyze how they feel. To my knowledge, there are no other discipline books that have been written recently enough to take these things into consideration. There probably are books out there with one or two of these strategies, but I did not find any that had all of them.
The idea of teaching children mindfulness is revealing. There are so few adults who really understand how to take stock of how they’re feeling or when they need to slow down. What are your thoughts?
Absolutely. We’re teaching self-management skills. There’s a school in Los Angeles that started practicing quiet times, or meditation. They do a few minutes every day before school starts, and they’ve seen a drastic improvement in their class environment and in the behavior of the students in the school. This is one of the preventative measures schools are using now. I like the idea that schools are making students more responsible for their own behavior instead of just reacting.
In the book, you stress how these techniques are for the tough disciplinary challenges teachers face in real classrooms today. What disciplinary challenges do teachers face in the modern classroom that they, perhaps, did not face 20 years ago?
I’m hearing more about students who are so often involved in disciplinary infractions that they become discipline-savvy. They know the rules. You get a student who sits across from the principal and says, “You just suspended me, so you can’t do another 10-day suspension.” You’ve got kids who know what the principal’s options are before the principal applies them because the principal has already had to do those things a dozen times with the same student over the course of several months.
So they’re taking advantage of the system?
Yes, absolutely. That’s why the education system is searching for new strategies. I really like the restorative circle—the idea that if a student harms another student, the rule breaker, the victim, both students’ parents, and the assistant principal sit down together to chat. It’s not a “confront the guilty” in a court system type of thing, but it is about one kid saying to the other, “Why did you do that to me?” I like this strategy because if we make students aware of the impact their behavior is having on others, sometimes we can get a handle on the student overall.
You write about preventative, whole-class, and whole-school disciplinary strategies. Which of these are schools using less than they should?
Frankly, preventative is where schools are missing the boat. When I go into a school district, I ask what they’re doing preventatively. For example, one of my strategies is adult mentoring. I ask if they’re doing that because it’s good to pair kids up with a mentor before there’s a problem. Sometimes that’s one of the best things you can do. A little bit of attention can go a long way with some students to alleviate behavior problems. The vast majority of schools aren’t practicing preventative disciplinary strategies.
Why aren’t they utilizing that as much as they should?
I don’t think discipline specialists like me who are training in schools have spent enough time emphasizing preventative measures. If you ask any educator out there, “How do you deal with disciplinary issues?”, their first thought is not, We do mindfulness training, or We do an adult mentoring program. Their first thought is, Someone misbehaved in my class so I’m going to send them to the assistant principal’s office or call in a parent. This is exactly how I would have answered when I was a teacher. Those answers are what you do after a disciplinary problem occurs. And that’s reactionary. You don’t want to be exclusively reactionary.
You talk about positive school cultures in the book. Does the overall reputation of a school play into how students perceive themselves? For example, if a school has a reputation of being a dangerous place, will students live up to that expectation thus creating more disciplinary problems?
Yes, the school reputation does become a self-fulfilling prophecy. I don’t know if anybody has looked at it in depth from that perspective.
Is it realistic to believe a teacher can change the climate in her classroom to a more positive environment if she’s in a learning community that isn’t implementing these whole-school strategies?
Oh, absolutely, without question. It’s just about a little bit of extra effort. A teacher can greet each student by name and with a handshake at his or her door. I did it. I had the toughest batch of kids at my junior high school. When the principal didn’t know what to do with them, he’d send them to me. I greeted them at the door and made them feel welcomed. I had special needs students, and some of them had a lot of emotional and disciplinary problems. But you can do things to change a student’s experience. I implemented a peer tutoring program. With the principal’s permission, I arranged softball and burger days for my students. I gave them an identity beyond being Special Ed kids. I didn’t think of it at the time as a disciplinary activity to change classroom climate, but it made a big difference.
What do you believe is the dynamic between discipline and establishing relationships in the classroom?
The whole reason I was effective with my kids was because of relationships. It was clear to me that relationship was the basis of effective discipline. You’ve got to make that student want to behave differently and the only way that is going to happen is if they believe that even the discipline they get from you is for their own benefit. It’s exactly what every parent faces, too.
We’ve already discussed certain preventative measures. Is there anything else teachers can do prior to disciplining to positively impact the situation?
I like to see preventative measures done as a whole-school initiative, but they can be done by an individual teacher. It can work.
But there’s another tactic I don’t see discussed much. I put one set of strategies in my book called disciplinary Band-Aids. In a sense, it’s a way for teachers to extract themselves from the disciplinary situation without having to respond to it immediately. You can have a student who curses at a teacher and makes it clear he isn’t going to do whatever the teacher is asking. The teacher can respond right then and there. But it’s important to realize the student started a power play with the teacher. Whenever a teacher and a student have a power play, the student will always win, even if a teacher throws a student out of class. Who’s won that power play? The student wanted to get out of class from the beginning. A teacher needs to know there are things she or he can do to diffuse the situation and come back to it later. Sometimes humor works to lighten the situation.
But what is the effect on other students when they see one student get away with something like cursing at the teacher?
Here’s a myth in discipline: Discipline is an immediately infectious and contagious disease. It’s the idea that if one student misbehaves and gets away with it for two minutes, then every other kid in the classroom will stand up and do the same thing. That’s nonsense, but teachers are taught that. I was taught not to “lose my corner of the room” or my disciplinary authority, and I remember telling other teachers not to lose their disciplinary authority over minor things in the classroom. But sometimes you can allow a student to win a power struggle without losing your disciplinary authority. Now, if a kid does it every day and gets away with it, then something has to change. But one infraction isn’t a big deal. Sometimes I can share power and it’s fine, especially if I have a good relationship with that student otherwise. We would be better to teach children how to be in control of their own emotions through these moments instead of immediately responding with disciplinary actions. We are all intrinsically wired to match whoever we’re talking to, including voice quality, emotional intensity, facial expressions, even posture. If someone comes in cursing at you, your response will be to curse at them unless you’ve trained yourself otherwise. One of the disciplinary Band-Aids is being aware of that code matching. Then the student is learning what is the more appropriate response.
We’ve covered a lot. Can you give me a summary of your strategies on school discipline?
Sure. We have three levels of discipline: the preventative measures, the Band-Aid measures, and finally the long-term disciplinary responses that are monitored over a course of time. I cover all of them in detail in the book.