Last year, our staff adopted the positive discipline approach to replace ineffective no-tolerance policies. Positive discipline is based on the practice of problem-solving instead of punishment. At its core are weekly class meetings, where students work through problems together. At the beginning of the year, teachers “train” students to present problems and offer solutions. Within this process, both teachers and students explore topics such as mutual respect, encouragement and recognizing mistaken goals. One of the biggest challenges is to shift our focus from punishment to solutions.
I was skeptical about using class meetings as a primary mode for addressing discipline. I was concerned that students would not feel comfortable bringing issues to the class. But after a few weeks of training, one student stepped forward with an issue on the agenda. It was the perfect first item: He wanted to create a fair system for people to agree upon music choices without a conflict. We brainstormed solutions as a class and decided one that has worked smoothly, in part, because it came from the students.
While it worked well, this first attempt did not really test the class meetings format for addressing true conflict. That came a week later, when another student was having problems with a girl in the class who tends to react quickly and aggressively when even slightly provoked. He had tried to handle the problem on his own, but found that they kept getting into heated arguments. I coached him on how to present the issue to the class using “I” statements, and requesting help, and not engaging in a personal attack. We passed the talking stick around the circle and several students offered suggestions for how to solve the problem. When the stick came to the girl, she recommended:
“You should just try approaching her and asking her to talk about it. Don’t start off by saying ‘What’s your problem?’ Just really try to talk to her. I bet she’d be willing to listen.”
We all knew that she was talking about herself, but the class meeting allowed her to distance herself from the drama. She was able to look at the problem from a more logical and more powerful space. This is where real problem solving could occur.
I don’t think that class meetings will address all of our discipline issues, but I do see that it can prevent conflicts from escalating. Coming together as a class also allows students to address problems on their own terms. That’s education.
Anderson is a middle school humanities and interdisciplinary studies teacher in Oregon.