Don’t Suspend Students. Empathize.

This is my response to this article in the New York Times.

In my 30+ years of teaching, I’ve found that one simple, three-word phrase (four, if you count the contraction) goes a long, long way in student discipline. When a kid is being defiant or inappropriate in a way that is escalating, I ask them to step into the hall or my office and tell them I’ll be out in a minute. I wrap up what I’m doing at the moment, join the student, and ask, “What’s going on?” Then I shut up and listen.

Nine times out of ten, it has nothing to do with class. They came into class already angry or wound up over something else, and just being allowed to express that makes a big difference. I don’t negate what the kid tells me. I don’t say things like, “That’s no reason to disrupt class.” They’re kids. They’re immature. What constitutes a reason to be disruptive to them is not the same as a reason to be disruptive to adults (who probably should be more disruptive than they are sometimes). And sometimes you would be amazed and saddened to know the weight some kids come into the classroom with.

I say something like, “Wow, it sounds like you have a lot on your plate. I can see how that might make it hard to concentrate.” If it is something about class, I say, “I get that you think this is dumb” or “I get that you’re frustrated” or something else that fits.

I don’t follow it with “but.” Kids know that everything before the “but” is bullshit.

If it’s a personal problem, and I can offer a bit of advice, I do. If it’s personal and huge and we can’t fix it, I ask if the student wants a hug, and I respect their answer, yes or no. I tell them I can see how it would be hard to do school with all that going on.

Once the kid has been able to say what they need to say, and I have affirmed that I hear and understand, I say, “Here’s the thing…” and I explain that what we’re doing in class is necessary, whether they see that at the moment or not, whether they feel up to it or not. “Life is like that,” I tell them, and I say all the things adults usually say up front, things like, “Not everything in life is fun or seems relevant at the time” or “life gets really hard sometimes, and we all still have to do our jobs” yada yada yada.

Kids are much more receptive to the all the usual adult admonitions when they feel like they’ve been heard and their feelings are important. Then I say, “Do you want to stay out here a few more minutes and get it together, or are you ready to come in with me?” They are almost always back in class in a few minutes, on task and calmer. If not, I usually send them to the counselor. I think maybe three or four times in all my years I have sent kids to the office. By the time I’ve determined that to be the best course of action, yeah, they need at least an in-school suspension, but that’s three kids in over 30 years.

On rare occasions, a bunch of kids are bouncing off the walls. I have been known to stop an activity dead in its tracks and lead the whole class through a discussion. I ask why we’re doing what we’re doing (which they know because we started the activity off this way every time). I ask how it relates to life, and if they don’t know, I ask question after question until they get there. I almost never tell kids anything important. I ask questions to guide them to the right conclusion, which they feel they’ve reached on their own and therefore value more than any proclamation I can ever make.

Yes, this is time-consuming. In my ACE class, I have a lot of kids with a lot on their plates, which means this has to happen almost daily. In that class, I have a phenomenal paraprofessional who is just as good at this as I am, so she can pull the kid in the hall or, if the class is working on an assignment, she keeps them on-track while I’m with the kid. But I did this in my traditional classes, as well. Sometimes it took 15 or 20 minutes to join the kid I’d sent out, and in the interim, they’d calmed down. And watching a kid get sent into the hall for some kind of mysterious talking-to gets the rest of the kids in a traditional class to get back to business pretty quickly.

In my experience, empathy works.

About admin

Paula is an author of historical fiction as well as a wife, mom, and teacher.
This entry was posted in Life, the Universe, and Everything. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Don’t Suspend Students. Empathize.

  1. Marianne Van Natta says:

    Truly wise words, Paula! Thanks for reminding us about what really matters–connecting with kids!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *