By Claudia St. Amour, counselor
By the fall of 2008, Greenfield Elementary School was well on its way to integrating its core values of respect, responsibility and kindness into our school culture. This is when we began the serious task of taking a critical look at our school-wide discipline system, through the eyes of the Character Education Partnership’s 11 Principles and our own core values.
What Discipline Looked Like Then
Our school operated with a “ticket” system for severe infractions (from a list of disrespectful and unsafe behaviors) and “card turns” in the classroom (green to yellow to red and beyond). Students who earned a ticket also earned the consequence of after-school detention. Students who “got to red” on the color chart missed a recess or lost a similar privilege. Chronic card turns also resulted, ultimately, in the student receiving a ticket as well. On the reward side, we offered “Caught Being Good” slips for children who “did the right thing” when they thought no one was looking. These slips were pulled from a jar in the office once a week for prizes at the school store.
At that time, our school was a well-organized and safe environment where students had consistent, clear and well-defined limits (rules) and consequences. In the classroom, there was order and predictability. Our school had an overall feeling of calm – due primarily to this consistency, coupled with the high level of warmth and kindness emanating from our staff. On the surface, our discipline system worked. Yet, there were several underlying problems it was unable to address or mitigate. For example, students with chronic behavior problems never seemed to improve and often times got worse. Teachers commented that, although efficient and expedient, the use of card turns often created anger, resentment and discouragement in students that seemed to last all day. Our fifth grade teachers finally decided to do away with card turns for this very reason. We also began to realize that our “Caught Being Good” slips had little or no effect on disruptive students, nor did they give our more compliant students any framework for understanding their own moral choices and why they were good or bad.
The Change Process
Using the 11 Principles rubric and the recommendations from our NSOC site visitors (we had been named a NSOC Finalist in May 2008), we began the change process. Our Character Education Committee developed a sub-committee on school wide discipline. It was co-chaired by second grade teacher and lower team leader, Lynn Cronin and school social worker, Katie Ehmann. They researched best practice and character-based discipline in school. We then met as an entire committee with representation from every grade level, special classes, support services and community-based services. We used the Professional Learning Community model to begin working together to formulate a new, character-based system of discipline. We started by reading selected research, discussed our current practices in light of this research, and made lists of what we do well and what isn’t working. We created new school rules based on our core values and began to think deeply about how children learn. We began to model and practice more and more when our students didn’t display the behaviors we were asking them to demonstrate. These discussions guided us in the formulation of a logical and natural consequence approach to discipline. We also embraced three compelling strategies we learned from the Responsive Classroom model: loss of privilege, “you break it you fix it” and apology of action. In March, 2009, we launched our new plan by totally eliminating card turns, tickets and “Caught Being Good” slips.
What Discipline Looks Like Now
In order to provide a visual tool for teachers to refer to when making critical decisions about student discipline and to provide a consistent framework for such decision-making, we created a pyramid of interventions in graphic form. On the base of the pyramid were all the school wide practices that support character development, teach children the “whys” of good behavior and build the social-emotional culture of the school. These practices include Morning Meeting, “Solve-It-Spot,” class and grade level (team) meetings, peer mediation and leadership group. On the next level are mild levels of intervention such as “Refocus” (tool to allow students to refocus and rejoin the group without the disruption of teaching or learning); logical/natural consequences; modeling and practice and discussion. Moderate interventions include those mentioned above: loss of privilege, “you break it you fix it” and apology of action. For serious discipline matters, we now us a Reflection Sheet that has guided, character-based questions that help students understand how their behavior hurt others: including classmates, teacher, parents/family and themselves. Before they tell us their plan for solving this behavior problem, students meet with 2-3 adults in a “character” conference to go over the reflection sheet and talk about it in depth. Our goal is to create students who are intrinsically motivated to “do the right thing, even when no one is looking.” At the very top of the pyramid are those interventions that are part of a comprehensive behavior support plan that is individualized for those students who need this type of support. We are in the process of studying Ross Greene’s Collaborative Problem Solving model for use with individual students in the future.
A Work in Progress
We just finished creating a discipline folder with forms and suggestions for all staff members to use. We are still discussing what works well and what needs revision. We feel that we are on the right track toward creating a school culture where students really learn about the whys of good behavior, grow in conscience, develop morally and socially and understand at a deep level our core values of respect, responsibility and kindness.