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Discipline With Dignity
Stresses Positive Motivation


Threats and rewards may seem to change a student's behavior, but do they last once the punishment and rewards are gone? Discipline with Dignity teaches educators to create positive motivators for kids so they take responsibility for their own behavior. Included: Examples of Discipline with Dignity in action.

One of the many variations of a light bulb joke asks, "How many psychiatrists does it take to change a light bulb?"

None, goes the punch line. The light bulb has to want to change.

Without over-analyzing the joke, most people can see it illuminates a truth about human nature. While certain incentives or rewards might initially alter some behaviors, a person needs insight and motivation for more permanent changes to take hold. And that requires time and effort.

"Your goal as an educator should be to influence change," according to Dr. Allen Mendler, one of the founders of the behavior management approach Discipline with Dignity. "To really inspire change in youngsters, you have to get them to want to change."


Discipline with Dignity

Elementary school principal Gerard Evanski gave an example of some of the questions an educator using Discipline with Dignity might ask a student who misbehaved:

What were you doing? "This can be very enlightening for a kid," Evanski said.

What will happen if you continue this?

What can you do differently next time?
Creating positive motivation for children to adopt new behaviors is at the heart of the Discipline with Dignity approach. Some administrators who are fans of the philosophy said it is straightforward and yields results, even if those results do not occur overnight.

"For schools, I don't think there is anything better than Discipline with Dignity," said Gerard Evanski, principal of Erie Elementary School in Clinton Township, Michigan. "I found it to be the most comprehensive and practical system -- you sit down with teachers and say, 'Use these words, this works,' and tell them why."

"I think Discipline with Dignity changed my life," added Colleen Zawadzki, principal of the Career Academy, an alternative high school operated by the Onondaga Cortland Madison Counties (New York) Board of Cooperative Educational Services (BOCES). "No one wants to be a 'screaming skull' -- at least I don't. Not as a principal, teacher, or parent."


Mendler, a former school psychologist, said the framework for Discipline with Dignity grew out of his experience working with difficult students. "I regularly got the lion's share of children who misbehaved."

"The core of it is to do what needs to be done to prevent problems from occurring," Mendler told Education World. "That includes making curriculum relevant, building relationships, and making the classroom a safe place."

Discipline with Dignity maintains that if teachers take the time to build relationships with students, the strength of those relationships can help minimize conflicts. If teachers spend time getting to know students, kids are more likely to want to be compliant, the theory goes. Strategies for building relationships include greeting kids when they enter the room, finding out about their interests, being visible, and asking their opinions. Once those relationships are built, teachers can draw on that good will when problems arise.

"You have to start to help kids realize that it [following the rules] is the right thing for them to do -- not because someone is watching them, but because it will make their lives better."
"You build connections for the bad times," said Zawadzki, who trains teachers to use Discipline with Dignity and has used it since she started at her school 18 months ago, as well as at a prior school. "You have to see kids with an eye toward connecting with kids, so when the hard stuff comes up, they will listen to you."

For example, Mendler said, instead of ranting at a student for wearing headphones in class, a teacher should ask the pupil what he or she is listening to, so the teacher can ask a question or make a comment about life that is relevant to that student.

One of the hardest aspects of training teachers to use Discipline with Dignity is convincing them that they are not taking on another task, Mendler added. "Most educators are feeling enormous amounts of pressure to get test scores up and are drilling kids," he said. "In the process, it becomes easy to neglect things that build effective behavior management. It takes time to build relationships and defuse power struggles. It's hard for teachers to convince themselves they have time for this. But when you take an extra minute or two [to get to know kids], it can save an enormous amount of time in dealing with difficult kids."


Evanski, who also trains teachers to implement Discipline with Dignity and has been using the approach for about 18 years, said the technique requires adults to shift their thinking about how they deal with children. "It's thinking about how you meet kids' basic needs in positive ways," he said. "We're looking at long-term behavior changes. A kid may be in third grade, but it may take until fifth grade for changes to take hold. These are not quick fixes."


Unmotivated Kids

Brian Mendler, a former teacher who also works for Discipline with Dignity, said that measuring a student's achievement against his or her prior performance -- rather than against other students -- can help motivate a student to do better.

"The biggest motivation killer is when kids do the very best they can and still don't do well," he said. "In the case of some difficult kids, they may have been motivated at one time, but they did their best on something and did not get a good grade. When difficult kids start with an assignment that has no right or wrong answer, there is a high completion rate.

"Evaluate kids as individuals -- compare the kids to themselves," Mendler suggested. "See if they do better than they did before."
Schools can start establishing Discipline with Dignity by letting students help develop rules that fall under the school's principles. Discipline with Dignity also emphasizes ways to avoid adult-child power struggles and to help students take responsibility for their own behavior. All disciplinary actions -- often called logical consequences -- are administered in private.

"You have to start to help kids realize that it [following the rules] is the right thing for them to do -- not because someone is watching them, but because it will make their lives better," Zawadzki told Education World.

Teachers also have to learn to ignore the "hooks" that can get them pulled into power struggles with students. "If a [standing] student sits down when you tell him to, but wants to get in the last word, let him," said Evanski. "It's up to the adult to stop the hostility cycle."

Mendler and his colleagues -- who include his son, Brian, and Discipline with Dignity co-founder Dr. Richard Curwin -- work with educators to give them strategies to address what they consider three basic needs of youngsters: a connection, competence, and control. If kids don't have those, Allen Mendler said, they can simply shut down from lack of motivation or act out.

Curwin gave examples at an ASCD conference of two ways to deal with a potentially class-disrupting event. If a student refuses to sit down after entering the class, the teacher can say to the pupil, "Sit down or I will call your father." The student might sit down, but will resent the teacher's response. That student is not motivated to change his future behavior.

Curwin recommends never attempting to alter behavior when emotions are high. Instead, try saying to the student, "It takes courage to sit down when you have been told to sit. Not everyone is that brave." Offer to borrow a music stand so the student can stand up for the class if that is what she or he wants.

Then deal with the underlying issue later. The teacher can ask the student after class what was going on. Curwin suggested saying, "I know when you usually have a hard decision to make, you do it well. I'm glad you are in my class."

"You need optimism," according to Allen Mendler. "Once you surrender optimism, you lose to skepticism and pessimism. You need to be difficult to offend and quick to forgive."

Other key strategies include: to listen, acknowledge, agree, and defer, said Evanski. That is, listen to a student's comment, acknowledge what he or she said, agree that he or she is upset, and then defer acting on the situation until after class. Then speak quietly to the student.

"You look at it as a continuum of consequences," Zawadzki said. "You have to make sure a kid knows what he did was wrong, but also what he needs to do to do things right. Almost all the punishments have learning opportunities."


Zawadzki recalled how Discipline with Dignity played out when she saw a boy smoking on school grounds, a violation of school rules and state law. She and the school's social worker met with the student and talked about how smoking is an addiction and the harm it can do to one's health. The student said he would not smoke on school grounds again and got off with a warning.

A short time later, Zawadzki saw him smoking on campus again, and it took all of her willpower to hang on to her Discipline with Dignity training. "I wanted to march out there, publicly address it, humiliate him, and call his parents," she told Education World. "But you have to get over how you were raised. Kids don't have the part of the brain that looks into the future. I was upset -- but you have to override instinct. Don't take it personally if someone backslides."

Instead, she restrained herself and at the end of the day waited for the student on the school bus. When he got on, they had a discussion about planning an alternative consequence for his behavior. Zawadzki assigned the student to create a health lesson on the perils of smoking and present it to the school -- which she viewed as a very logical consequence for his behavior.

"You have to ask yourself, 'Is it [the penalty] inflicting punishment or creating learning opportunities?'"

Students and faculty thought the presentation was good, and the boy said he learned a lot. While he is still a smoker, he entertains conversations about trying to stop and no longer smokes on campus. "He understands the law and honors us by not smoking on school grounds," Zawadzki noted.

In another situation, a student was being belligerent and disrespectful to the teacher in class. The teacher sent him to the time-out room several times, which anyone can access if they feel the need to take a break, Zawadzki said.

When the student's behavior did not improve, the teacher, student, Zawadzki, and the student's mother had a discussion. Educators have to consider that there could be more behind a student acting out than just defiance, Zawadzki noted. "We sat around and asked the right questions. What it really was, was boredom. The student is very bright and the teacher was doing a lot of review."

"You need optimism. Once you surrender optimism, you lose to skepticism and pessimism. You need to be difficult to offend and quick to forgive."
The solution was to give the student a laptop so he could work on an independent project in class while the others were reviewing. None of the other students complained about the student being able to use a laptop. "They were just happy he's back in class," Zawadski said.

"You have to personalize the approach, but don't take it [students' actions] personally," added Zawadzki. "As Dr. Mendler said once, 'If you went to the doctor, he wouldn't give you an aspirin when you walked in just because that's what he gave the last person.'"


A major reason Discipline with Dignity is so effective is that it helps students build skills that they can apply, not just in school but in all aspects of their lives, said Zawadzki, especially at a time when many students don't have positive role models. "Discipline with Dignity is a blend with what makes sense in the world and what makes sense for what kids need to learn," she said. "They need to be able to navigate when no one is around. Responsibility is when kids do the right thing when they walk out of the classroom.

"So many kids are not learning the mores and structures to live in society," she continued. "They are not getting the face time of working with people -- they can't negotiate the ups and downs of growing up. We're trying to develop systems that pro-actively engage kids."

Many educators also are desperate for an effective behavior management strategy and find Discipline with Dignity can reduce their stress as well. "If anything has changed in my career, it is that there are more students in each class that can be challenging. And if teachers can't manage them, they become frustrated, and that leads to burnout," Mendler said.

That is why Discipline with Dignity is worth the time and effort for her staff to implement, Zawadzki said. "We work very hard to be calmly engaged in problem-solving consequences," she said. "It also has taught me to stand back and think before I cast any stones. One of the kids said, 'Ms. Z, maybe you should just be meaner.' But I maintain my dignity and require my teachers to maintain their dignity. I take a breath, ask good questions that get to the bottom of issues. Then I get to the bottom line and use logical consequences."


Article by Ellen R. Delisio
Education World®
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