‘Getting tough’ is not best approach to changing student behavior

It’s time for Israel to change the way we discipline children in school to increase learning outcomes.

January 18, 2017 21:50
4 minute read.
Students in a classroom.

Students in a classroom.. (photo credit: REUTERS)

It seems every 10 years or so, Israelis worry about lower than expected test scores and irrationally demand a get-tougher approach to discipline. “We have to do something about student behavior,” is the hue and cry.

This is irrational. We don’t have to do “something.” We have to do the right thing. Would anyone go to a doctor who always does something, even if it’s frequently the wrong thing? Getting tougher with students doesn’t help students learn and never will.

Here are three proven suggestions that improve student behavior in schools.

1. Parents and society must respect teachers.

There is a direct relationship in teachers’ ability to contribute to society and the respect they are given. It is impossible for children to respect teachers if our culture does not. The problem goes far beyond the ridiculously low pay teachers receive.

This disrespect is based on the premise that teaching is easy and anyone can do it. In a perverted way, it’s true. Anybody can do anything. I can perform brain surgery. The patient would die, but I could do it. Anyone can teach, but only a few exceptional individuals with the proper training, skills and temperament can get students to learn. If we think about it, teaching is harder than brain surgery because all the patients are anesthetized in surgery. Teaching would be so much easier if every student was anesthetized.

Countries that respect teachers the most have the highest academic achievement. In these countries students know the value of their teachers and show them great respect.

I recommend the Knesset pass a law saying that anyone who says teaching is easy or that anyone can teach must teach 30 seventh graders for five days.

Evidence suggests that in homes where parents complain the most about schools and teachers, students respect them the least. Thus, these parents are in some way part of the problem. It’s far better to cooperate with teachers and see them as teammates than as adversaries. School is for all kids, not just the “good” ones. Each student, regardless of his school behavior, will someday be an adult in society.

2. Since the first schools were created, one of their most important functions has been to socialize students so they can flourish socially as well as academically. Israel can afford a poor reader a lot more than someone who hurts others as a method of conflict resolution. The purpose of effective discipline has never been to force students to comply. It has always been to teach students how to make better choices in handling interactions with others.

If getting tough with people improved behavior, antisocial acts would have disappeared centuries ago. Great teachers use discipline infractions to improve students’ ability to make choices, not to inflict pain.

For example, if you don’t know how to use a computer, no amount of threat, reward or punishment will solve your problem.

The only solution is to learn how to use the computer. The same is true for students, who only know inappropriate responses to social interactions.

Threat, reward and punishment must be reserved for extreme cases. They do not teach students how to make better choices.

Even in the workplace, reward and punishment have little connection to improved productivity. Teachers, if they want better student behavior, need to severely limit threat, reward and punishment, tools designed to get students to stop thinking and merely comply.

Another commonly used technique must stop immediately: public humiliation.

Research proves that all public behavior charts, public reprimands and public apologies worsen student behavior. I’m reminded of the high school math student who when threatened by his teacher, who wanted him to sit down, said, “Okay, I’ll sit down. But in my mind, I’m still standing up!” The math teacher got compliance, but stopped the process of learning for that student. It is the teacher’s responsibility to teach students like this.

Finally, strict techniques that rely on compliance lose effectiveness over time.

The first time a teacher tells a child to stop misbehaving or a call home will be the result, the child begs for mercy. “I’ll never do it again, I promise.” By the third time a teacher tries this approach the student says, “So call her. Who cares?” An extreme example is a child who’s been to a village school (a lockdown facility in Israel for students compelled to be there) and reintegrated into regular school.

Exactly what can you threaten this child with that he hasn’t already faced?

3. Discipline and student motivation are interconnected. Any discipline technique that reduces student motivation has no place in school. The four categories that increase student motivation do not include threat, reward or punishment. They are:

• How much the teacher cares about a student
• The relevance of content to what the student cares about
• The student’s belief that they can succeed
• The passion of the teacher for what she teaches If any of these categories increases, student learning will increase.

It’s time for Israel to change the way we discipline children in school to increase learning outcomes. Threats, rewards and punishments have never been the answer and are not now.

The author is the director of the graduate program in managing student behavior for disabled youth at David Yellin College in Jerusalem.

He is the author of 20 books, including the worldwide best seller, Discipline With Dignity.

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