By AMBER OWENS
My 7-year-old son was punched in the mouth at recess on his second day of school. That day at recess, some of his classmates were playing too roughly. Before he could say anything at all, one of the students punched him.
I found him with a bloody face, sobbing in the nurse's office. As his mother, I felt many emotions — anger, disappointment, fear, and sadness — but I didn't once wish for the child who punched him to be punished.
You see, I am also a teacher at my son's school, and I know just how discipline for physical aggression is often handled. Too many times in my 16 years of teaching, I have seen teachers and administrators yell at students, call them out in front of their peers, and shame them for their behavior. I've also seen what happens when there are no consequences at all. Neither choice reduces disruptive or violent behaviors or teaches children how to reflect on their choices and repair relationships with their peers or teachers.
Ask any teacher about that one child who keeps them up at night. We've all had at least one. Mine is a student who is angry and violent towards his peers and the adults at school. He has physically and emotionally bullied children in his classes since starting kindergarten. Even now, as a 7-year-old in the second grade, his mother told me, "He's just going to have to do some time in juvy and maybe they can straighten him out."
I know that we still have more work to do. In 2015, the Illinois Legislature passed Senate Bill 100 to create more effective student discipline practices across the state. Since the bill's passage, the number of suspensions in my district have been drastically reduced, but this has not eliminated the behaviors that caused them.
Even with our focus on restorative justice, my school had not yet found a way to reach the child who punched my son. This student had developed a reputation around the school. Every teacher knew his name, and many have had conversations with him about something they caught him doing that he wasn't supposed to. There are children like him in every school, at every grade level, and in almost every classroom. They have been in trouble since the day they walked in the school doors. But if you look deeper, the students who present this way are not "naughty" — they are reactive. For reasons outside of the school's control, they are constantly in fight or flight mode.
Students who are reactive cannot learn. So while it might be tempting to focus on how certain behaviors are "not what we do at school," teachers need spend time trying to figure out what's going on with this child. Here are a few things all teachers should be on the lookout for:
Reflect — are you pushing buttons? What do you know about that child? Think about learning styles, struggles with peers, friends and other teachers. What do you need to learn in order to reach these children? What changes can you make in your classroom to support them? How will you reach out to families to make a connection? It is my job to foster social skills in every child. Rather than seeing a problem, I now see opportunities to teach these.
Build a relationship with the student. Listen to them and don't interrupt. Let them tell you what they want without fear of judgment or commentary. If you do this, they are more likely to share with you what's going on in their lives. Recently, an over-excited fourth grader came into my classroom. He showed me a picture of a small white house from a real estate book. "Look," he said, "This is the house my mom is buying today. It's the first house we've ever owned, and today is the closing!" All he needed was a moment — one small moment where someone could listen.
Advocate for developmentally appropriate practices in schools. As an elementary teacher, I had to learn how to incorporate play back into my teaching, and to advocate fiercely for the time to do it. I use song experience games to create a safe and nurturing environment where children can sing and play. The play itself is powerful because it reduces stress and anxiety, breaks down barriers, teaches social skills, forms strong relationships, and stabilizes reactivity in children.
I believe that the focus on the whole child and their social emotional-learning is the appropriate path to reducing undesired behaviors in our schools. Teachers often ask themselves, "Is this practice good enough for my own children?" when determining how to proceed in each situation. Our children and our students deserve the opportunity to learn and grow, not be shamed or punished — and it's up to us to teach them.
Amber Owens teaches K-fifth grade general music and choir at Bottenfield Elementary School in Champaign. She is a nationally board certified teacher in Early/Middle Childhood Music and a Teach Plus Illinois Teaching Policy Fellow.