Times when we must discipline students can be among the most challenging and stressful situations we encounter. We want to avoid extended interruptions to learning, and some of us want to avoid confrontation. At the same time, though, we want other students to remain safe. And, of course, we want to avoid having emotions and behavior escalate to a level where the situation may spin out of control.
Certainly, the emotional and psychological state of the student will play a role in how the situation will play out. However, there is much we can do to prevent escalation and respond if tensions threaten to rise. Here are six tips we can use to maintain our focus, inform our responses, and thoughtfully manage the situation.
Start by listening. When we understand the student’s perspective, we are better able to respond effectively. At some level, the behavior makes sense to the student. Until we know why the student made the choice or choices they did, deciding how to proceed will be risky. Often, by talking through what happened, the intensity of the student’s emotions begins to dissipate, and reason begins to emerge. Once the student has explained their motivation and actions, we are in a better position to understand and ask questions that can clarify the situation and formulate our next steps.
Avoid embarrassing or shaming the student, especially in front of others. We might be tempted to call out the behavior and student in a public way. However, this choice is filled with risk. Some students will feel humiliated and deeply resent the way they were treated; they will remember and harbor these feelings long after the incident has passed. Others will feel the need to “save face” and may push back even more vigorously, even as we attempt to deescalate and calm the situation.
Keep your ego and emotions out of it. Many students are highly skilled at “pressing the buttons” of adults. Yet, when our ego becomes involved, we are vulnerable to losing perspective, and when we lose control of our emotions, we lose control of the situation. We are more likely to say things we will regret and open the door to accusations that we have become part of the problem we are trying to solve.
Think teaching rather than punishing. In the heat of emotions and behaviors, we may immediately focus on the punishment that would be appropriate in response to the unacceptable behavior in which a student has engaged. However, this path risks missing an important opportunity to teach and change behavior in the future. Punishing a student may generate some feelings of satisfaction and closure, but it can sow the seeds of future misbehavior. Punishment often teaches little beyond the experience of embarrassment and temporary discomfort. Students may learn little, if anything, about how to control their emotions and manage their behavior. Our goal in response to unacceptable behavior is to teach students alternatives and strategies for remaining in control despite what happens around or to them. Of course, once emotions have calmed and the lesson has been taught, we still can assign reasonable and logical consequences. In fact, the best consequences are part of the learning we want students to gain.
Don’t threaten consequences you cannot (or do not intend to) deliver or do not control. Many students come to us having extensive experience with empty threats. Consequently, they will have little impact on behavior, other than challenging us to see if we will follow through. Promising consequences on behalf of someone else is equally problematic. Others may see the situation differently or have ideas that may not be consistent with our preferences. As a result, a colleague or administrator may be placed in the position of having to choose between supporting our threat and using what they see as their best judgment. Meanwhile, the student is likely to miss any lesson to be learned, while also receiving confusing messages about their behavior and the situation in general.
Reject the behavior, but value the student. Despite the unacceptability of any behavior, we need to be careful to separate the behavior from the student. Making an unwise choice or behaving in a manner to which we object does not make the student a bad person. There may be lessons they need to learn and adjustments in behavior they must make to be successful, but we need to be careful not to treat the student as being inherently bad or unworthy. We can protect our relationship with the student while disapproving of their behavior. In fact, our actions to separate the student from their behavior can be a message of hope for students who struggle to control their behavior and have few role models to emulate. Our reinforcement of their inherent value makes their struggle to learn and grow worth the effort.
There is no one-size-fits-all solution to managing behavior. If serious disruptions continue to occur, additional steps may be necessary, such as individual counseling with the student or reaching out to your colleagues with whom the student does experience success. We know that managing disciplinary situations is an important and integral part of our professional role. These steps can help us to create a context in which the student is respected, learning occurs, appropriate consequences are dispensed, and relationships remain intact.