Discipline with Love and Logic

A few years ago teachers at Gamble Montessori and Clark Montessori combined to do our back-to-school staff PD day. The work we did together was led by CMStep founder Marta Donahoe, and it explored a concept – new to me – enticingly called “Love and Logic”. I was intrigued by an approach to discipline in the school that included the word “love”, and further interested in the novel addition of “logic”. I was far more familiar with the common two-word request of teachers and even parents regarding school discipline: “law and order.”

In preparation for this time together, Marta suggested that I read Jim Fay’s administrator version of his Love and Logic book, called “Creating a Love and Logic School Culture.” I eagerly dove in, highlighting and annotating, excited to see an educator who had been down the path of law and order, and found it lacking.

The gist of the Love and Logic seemed pretty simple. Marta led us through a couple of exercises where we clearly articulated misbehaviors that were common at school. Then we discussed our responses to these behaviors. Then we shared our answers, and made two alarming discoveries.

First, we realized that we independently held many different beliefs about what behaviors should draw a disciplinary response. Second, we held widely variant opinions about the appropriate consequences that those misbehaviors should receive. This was alarming because within the individual school groups we all had worked with one another for a long time, long enough that we felt we had an agreed-upon understanding of behaviors and consequences. We were ready, nay eager, as Marta then drew us into a thoughtful and provocative conversations about the nature of our work as educators and the role that intentional correction played in shaping the moral values and decision-making skills of adolescents.

These conversations produced a powerful product from that day: a list of our school’s core beliefs about discipline. These were not a new set of rules. In fact, they really had almost nothing to do with the rules, or even the consequences. Instead, they were the values we were to consider when enforcing the rules and determining consequences for breaking them. These values were the atmosphere in which the rules existed. They were a guide to conscientious implementation of rules.

We ended up with six Love and Logic core values, which pervade our everyday exchanges with students, from mundane daily business to rarer incidents of severe misbehavior.

  1. We believe that every attempt should be made to maintain the dignity of all parties involved.

Teachers see dress code violations frequently. It is not uncommon at any school. At our school, generally the issue is clothing that is immodest – revealing undergarments or more. A common example is the relatively modern issue of students, usually young men, “drooping” or “sagging” their pants. That is, letting the waist of the pants fall well below the waistline. I always try to approach the student privately and say, “Can you tidy that up a bit? There is no reason why I should ever see your underwear.” This can also be accomplished by looking at the student and pantomiming pulling one’s pants up. This is a far better approach than stating, as I have heard done, “Are you some sort of thug? Pull those pants up.” This second approach may get the same result, and may even sound stricter and more authoritative, but it gains its forceful heft at the expense of the relationship between the adult and the student. It can leave a child wondering if the adult believes he is, in fact, something less than a student with a bright future.

When we discipline students for a specific infraction, we are not having a battle or a single interaction to be won or lost. We are, instead, developing a relationship, and helping pass on to them the locus of control for their own behavior and decisions. Trying to change behavior by reducing their dignity, perhaps by shaming or embarrassing them, is ineffective and counter-productive. It may change the behavior, but if a residual effect is resentment toward the teacher, then the ability to affect permanent change has also been damaged.

So if a student is in violation of the dress code, how we choose our language is important. I maintain a student’s dignity if I have the conversation privately, and if I treat the offense as if it were an accident or an oversight to be corrected. In this way the student’s dignity is preserved, and the relationship can be strengthened.

This same effort to maintain dignity is important even if the offense is far more serious. We all know that adolescents are risk-takers in many aspects of their lives. Sometimes this means that they bring drugs or alcohol to school, or sometimes weapons. No school is immune to this kind of behavior.

In the case of possession of a weapon or drugs, it is common practice at high schools to do a “perp walk,” where the handcuffed student is walked out the front door into the police car, parked conspicuously visible to as many classroom windows as possible. In my second year as principal, this happened to a student of mine, and I had to have a difficult discussion with our SRO (school resource officer.) I explained that, in the future, if a student needed to be arrested, we would do everything in our power to protect his dignity. That included taking him down the back stairs to the car parked where no one could see it. This student, I explained, had to return to school. I wanted him to have the chance to return as a student, and not as a criminal.

Though this happened before the Love and Logic work, it illustrates why the L&L approach fit so well with our school: we always worked to keep the dignity and value of the student at the front of our thoughts and actions.

2. We believe that students, by doing most of the thinking/feeling, should be guided and expected to solve the problems they create without making problems for anyone else.

“How can we fix this?” is a question I often ask students when I am responding to misbehavior. Sometimes it is simple. When a student recently reported to me that he had broken a window, it was clear that he would have to help pay for the replacement, which he offered to do. Usually it is more complex. When a student has cheated, for instance, the teacher is tempted to address the problem by imposing one of a series of solutions, including perhaps taking a “0” on the assignment, or doing a version of the assignment again in a supervised place outside of the school day, perhaps in detention, or Friday Night School.

But in this second instance, there is more to be fixed. In the case of cheating, the relationship has been damaged. The teacher now feels a lack of trust in the student to keep her word, or to follow through and do work with integrity. This relationship is important, but a child needs support and instruction in how to win back this trust. This is best facilitated with a discussion that should have 3 components:

  1. The teacher needs to point out that trust, which is implicitly given to every student in the classroom, has been damaged by the student’s actions.
  2. The teacher needs to clearly state that this is not a permanent severing of the relationship. In fact, trust can be rebuilt. It is important that students hear that, figuratively speaking, they are in the “dog house” rather than no longer in a relationship with the teacher. (This is true for parents and bosses as well, and all relationships where there is a power imbalance.)
  3. The student needs to answer this question, asked by the teacher: “How will you earn back my trust?”

The student should not be allowed to be evasive in this last instance. She must be asked to come up with a full response and, importantly, it must actually satisfy the teacher’s needs as well. For instance, a student may suggest, “I just won’t cheat again.” An appropriate response from the teacher is, “I already expect that you will never cheat again. However, that is the minimum expectation. Trust needs to be rebuilt, and that will take effort on your part.” An appropriate response might be the student self-imposing a consequence or – better yet – providing some sort of service to the teacher during that time. “Maybe I could do a chore in the classroom during a detention?” The student offers. This suggestion could be met with, “You know, I haven’t been able to get my whiteboard as clean as I would like this week, maybe you could work on that for me and for the class?”

Ultimately, it is not for the teacher to restore the relationship, though providing periodic reminders remains the regrettably necessary responsibility of the authority figure.

3. We believe that students should be given the opportunity to make decisions and live with the results, whether the consequences are good or bad.

Early this school year there was an epidemic of forgotten school lunches. And, interestingly, a surfeit of parents willing to support and enable their children in maintaining this epidemic. Parents were calling the office and asking us to call down to a specific classroom to let their child know they were bringing them lunch, or that they had dropped off lunch. Our policy forbidding the use of cell phones meant we could not shift the communication burden back to parents. Worse yet, this “forgotten” lunch that the parent brought in was almost always fast food, or worse. One time an older sibling handed me a 2 liter of grape soda and a family size bag of Flamin’ Hots as the student’s forgotten “lunch.” I suppose if I had more presence of mind, I would have simply thrown that in the trash. This was definitely an example of a time in school where having nothing was better than having something.

Remarkably, this epidemic of forgotten lunches occurred in a school where we provide hot lunch to every child every day, for free.

To help parents and students develop the habit of better preparation, we changed our policy and told parents that we would no longer notify, deliver, or otherwise support the late arrival of lunch, and the active undermining of a student’s skills of preparation and planning. If a child forgot her lunch, she could eat in the cafeteria, for free, like most everyone else. Or she could miss a meal. I was confident that this would encourage better preparation in the future. I believe that this policy may have actually been a relief to parents of a few strong-willed students, for the protests I heard largely emanated from students claiming that their parents were really mad. The parent protests were minor and short-lived.

When a child chooses not to prepare for the day, the person who should feel the consequences is the student.

Similarly, students who are beholden to poor habits might also feel inconvenienced at school. Barb Scholtz, a long-time friend, mentor, and my son’s teacher, related to me a story about the parent who was reluctant to send her son on the 10 day marine biology study because he “only eats hot dogs.” Barb, of course, refused to provide hot dogs at every meal. She reassured the parent, “After three days he will change his mind. He will be fine.” Indeed, it did not take three days. He ate different foods their first night in the Bahamas, and never once indicated to the teachers this strange food dependence. He had to decide, perhaps on an empty stomach, to change this habit, or that it was not really worth holding on to. It would have been awful if the adults had conspired to make sure he could only eat hot dogs. How disempowering for the student! How much trouble for the adults! And how much less satisfying would this, or other future travel experiences, be without expanding his palate? Allowing him to feel the consequences of his choice opened him up to a wealth of future experiences, even if it did cost him a day of feeling hungry.

4. We believe that misbehavior should be handled with natural consequences instead of punishments whenever possible.

In my first year as principal at Gamble, I sat down at a table across from a defiant 7th grader who had been asked to move seats for talking, but then got removed from class for refusing to move and calling her teacher a name. I had brokered several of these sorts of conversations with other, older, students in years past, so I knew what to expect. The student would see that they had been removed from class and were facing a consequence. They would perceive that they had gained nothing from the name-calling. This student clearly wanted to be with her friends, and she would want to return to class, and pretty quickly realize that the fastest route was an apology.

It started according to the routine. “What happened?” I asked.

“She asked me to move, so I called her ‘horseface’ and so she sent me here and gave me a Friday Night School.” This perfectly matched the teacher’s description. We had already cleared an important hurdle. This was going to be a piece of cake!

“Why did she ask you to move?”

“I was talking too much.”

“Now, wouldn’t you rather be in class?” I asked, deftly setting her up, like an old pro.

“Yes,” she conceded.

“So don’t you wish you had not called her that?” I was moving in for the big finish. Set her up, get her to see the error of her ways, get her to think an apology is her idea …

“No. Why would I regret it? She has a face like a horse. She needed to know. Someone needed to tell her.”

Needless to say, I was not ready for that reply. At a loss, I asked, “And that person had to be you?”

“Yep.” She said smugly. “It sure did.”

What is the natural consequence for insulting someone? What is the natural consequence for being tardy to class? Sometimes the answer to these questions are not as simple as in the case of a forgotten lunch. While we could argue that the student who is late to class misses early instruction, or even warm-up “points” or practice, this is not always the biggest motivating factor in a teen’s life. This is especially true when the attraction in the hall is a girlfriend or boyfriend. There might, in fact, be rewards or incentives for the student to be tardy.

And what happens when, as in this case, the child feels no remorse, or at least conveys no feeling of remorse?

Natural consequences are powerful change agents, but sometimes the situation requires more than that. Or sometimes the natural consequence is unacceptable. This is why parents teach their children early not to go near the street, and not to play with fire. The natural consequences of these actions are too great to bear, and they must be prevented at all cost. This principle includes the important words “whenever possible” because sometimes it is not.

5. We believe that students should have the opportunity to tell their side of the story.

This tenet was baked into our disciplinary procedures from the very beginning, but it is an often overlooked part of the disciplinary process. I have shared the story elsewhere of the time when, as a beginning teacher, a student left my room in the middle of instruction. I was shocked!. This shock then turned to anger as she then had the gall to walk past my door not once but twice more – while I was still delivering the lesson. In addition to pointing her behavior out to the whole class, I very publicly filled out a Saturday School form filled out (in triplicate) and had it poised and waiting for her when she re-entered. She, with remarkable poise, explained what I did not see: a teacher had dropped her papers in the hall and, in the process, had spilled her coffee. The student helped with the papers, then ran to the restroom and back with some paper towels. She had left my classroom to help, not to skip and flaunt her absence. She also apologized for entering the men’s room to get the towels, since it was much closer than the women’s room.

How many times have we seen just a part of a situation, and made a snap judgment, only to learn that there is much more to the story? How many times has this happened to us; where we were accused of something, perhaps something that came with a consequence, when we know there was a reasonable and rational explanation for our own behavior? And how did we feel about the person who would not listen to our side of the story? It is likely that we held our grudge for a long while. We don’t want to be the person who gets this wrong.

Telling their side of the story does NOT mean that a consequence is not appropriate or is not assigned. In fact, many times the student tells the story and takes full responsibility for their actions. Admittedly, this happens a lot more when they trust they will really be listened to.

6. We believe that misbehavior should be viewed as an opportunity for individual problem-solving and preparation for the real world as opposed to a personal attack on the school staff.

“I would never let a student talk to me that way.” I have heard this many times, usually from a teacher or paraprofessional at the school, and usually after an angry middle school student has refused my directive to stop running in the hallway, or to get quiet, and had kept on going to their classroom. “Don’t talk to me, Mr. Jose!” or some similar response is returned as they storm down the hall.

I usually reply, “Wow, he’s pretty upset right now. I think I will walk down and talk to him.”

It would be easy in that situation, in fact it would be perfectly normal and appropriate, to see those words as an attack on me or my authority. It could even be presented as evidence that I am “soft” or “too easy” on the kids. In reality, I am not excusing the behavior, I am just choosing to deal with it when the student is ready to address it.

The student who is so upset that they talk to an adult like that is – clearly – not fully in their rational mind at the moment. They understand the roles of parents, teachers, and other adults in their lives.  It is truly the rarest of students who legitimately do not “know better” than to talk to adults like that. So I have to decide. Do I want to solve the problem I see on the surface – the disrespect? Or do I want to figure out what caused the disrespect? So, I calmly walk down the hall, direct a few other students to class on the way, and then poke my head into the classroom to catch the eye of the offending student.

Almost every time, she hangs her head, but then looks up again, and comes outside into the hallway. Perhaps because she knows that what comes next will be a question. “What happened back there? Because it is not like you to speak so disrespectfully to me or other adults. I know something must have made you pretty angry.” What almost always follows is an explanation of some conflict at lunch. And what usually follows that, sometimes with some prompting, is an actual apology. Not a forced response to a directive or a demand like “Call me ‘Sir’,” but an actual apology. Sure I may prompt it with a phrase or two, like, “It was just really odd to be talked to like that,” or “I was pretty sure I had not done anything to offend you.” Sometimes I even have to pull out the old, “When I definitely did not deserve to be treated that way.”

Some students take more prompting than others.

If I took it as an attack on me, I could easily miss the real issues going on, and the chance to solve problems that are more disruptive than just running in the hall. I would likely escalate the issue, and provide even more consequences, and perhaps lose the chance to teach this student anything in the future.

Ultimately, discipline will always be an issue at school, at least as long as we keep having students and we keep having rules and expectations. Making the transition from a typical “law and order” approach to a more attentive ‘Love and Logic” approach will find that building the trust of students takes time. Students will attempt to avoid consequences, and misrepresent the truth. This happens at every school and in most households. Students will not share important information with staff sometimes, and people will be hurt as a result. This is not a new behavior. Building trust takes time and effort on the part of the adults, too. We cannot assume that all students trust us from the beginning. Students will need to see that we are consistent, and trustworthy before their own change happens. It is important that teachers and other adults work to earn that trust in every interaction.

Just like with planting a tree, the best time to start a transition to a love and logic process is ten years ago. The second best time is today.

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