A first-grade teacher asks what she can do about a girl in her class who is completely undisciplined. After nearly two months of this teacher's best efforts, the child's behavior is no better. She is defiant, aggressive toward other kids, and often gets out of her seat and crawls around on the floor. Several years ago, she taught the girl's older sister who also had numerous discipline issues. The home is chaotic, so the teacher doubts she can expect much if any help from the parents.
The further problem is that the public school in which she teaches forbids the use of "negative" consequences. She can't take any privilege, including recess, away from the child. She is restricted to using a visual "red light, green light" system that simply lets the child know what her behavior level is at any given moment in time. At the end of the day, she sends home notices to the parents of those kids who've had problems.
With great regret, I told the teacher that I had no suggestions that I'd put any faith in. There are two roadblocks to success in this sort of situation. First, a teacher cannot be expected to get a child's behavior under control without full cooperation from the child's parents. That cooperation has to include unmitigated acknowledgment of the problem as well as a commitment to follow through at home when there are discipline problems at school. Lacking that, a teacher is limited to containment strategies with a problem child. Furthermore, she will start every day at pretty much square one. With parent cooperation, a discipline problem can generally be solved quickly.
Unfortunately, there is widespread reluctance on the part of today's parents to fully acknowledge their kids' classroom behavior problems. Upon hearing of a problem, too many parents toss the hot potato back at the teacher, claiming that her management of or attitude toward the child is the issue, not the child's behavior.
The second roadblock, described in this teacher's communication with me, is public school discipline policy. With rare exception these days, schools tie the hands of teachers behind their backs. As in this teacher's case, they forbid "negative" consequences like taking away recess or having misbehaving children write sentences. They send teachers to seminars on behavior-modification based classroom strategies that "work" only with kids who would be well-behaved without them. The weaknesses inherent in public school discipline policy virtually guarantee that far too many kids will end up being diagnosed as having "disorders" of one sort or another and given potentially risky psychiatric medications.
A 2004 study by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute found that more than 1 in 4 public school teachers put their children in private schools. At the time, that was more than twice the figure for all parents. One of the top three reasons cited by these teachers was better discipline policies. Neither of the two national teachers' unions would comment on the study. Fancy that.
No one has more investment in classroom discipline than a teacher. Public school teachers are highly likely to opt out of public education for their own kids, in order that they might be disciplined more effectively. It's time the educrats put those two facts together.
John Rosemond, a family psychologist, answers parents' questions at rosemond.com.