Planting Seeds of Change Through Positive Discipline
by Bill Scott, Principal, Rocky Mount Elementary School, Marietta, GA
In our mobile society it is not uncommon for some families to relocate several times in a child's school career. This was true for Jimmy who moved to our school from a West Coast inner-city school. Jimmy had been exposed to gangs, drive-by shootings, and school violence. He was following the models of behavior he was being exposed to and much of his behavior was rebellious and nonproductive. He had not learned to take pleasure in learning and was referred for special education testing because he was reading two years below grade level.
Jimmy's father knew that his child didn't have a learning problem. He was very concerned because he believed children cannot learn unless they feel comfortable and safe in school. This was one of the main reasons that the family was uprooted and moved across country to settle in a suburban Atlanta community.
Fifth-grader Jimmy and his first-grader sister were apprehensive about moving to an unknown state, community, and school. Everything about this new place was different, from the climate to the distinct dialectal drawl to the change in time zone. Jimmy was not ready for his new educational setting where the kids in his class said, "Please" and "Thank You" and supported each other in respectful ways. They held class meetings on a daily basis and had learned how to solve their own problems, or help each other solve problems, without fighting. They even gave compliments to each other. This was very strange to Jimmy. Since he was used to aggression, name calling, and confrontation, he decided to challenge this new system.
It wasn't long before the school counselor and the principal got to know Jimmy quite well. He was the topic of many discussions as school personnel brainstormed ways to encourage him. He could have been labeled "bad" or behavior disordered, however the staff and students had learned early in the year that a troubled student is a discouraged student. They had also learned the power students have to help each other through Positive Discipline class meetings. They knew that Jimmy's behavior would be a real test of the effectiveness of Positive Discipline as they began to work on some of his problems through class meetings.
Jimmy was involved in several fights. The teacher wrote "Fighting" on the class meeting agenda. He asked for volunteers to role play a fight (with the caution that they could act like movie stars and simulate fighting without hurting each other). After the role play, the "actors" were invited to share their thoughts and feelings while fighting, and to share what decisions they were making about future behavior. This was followed by a lively discussion. The students decided it was important to use words instead of fists, and to look for solutions instead of blame. They also decided to give each other encouragement and reminders to look for respectful solutions that help everyone do better.
What a new experience for Jimmy. He was used to people ganging up to hurt others, not to help others. His behavior improved for a few days, but he wasn't through testing this strange system. The next challenge was his refusal to participate appropriately in group cooperative-learning activities. He continually distracted others in his group by talking and playing around instead of doing his share. The group members asked him to cooperate, but were not successful until it was brought up in a class meeting. After hearing the students discuss their feelings about his behavior in a respectful way, Jimmy apologized. He said he had not realized how much it bothered the rest of his group. His behavior then improved in this area and Jimmy began to experience the pleasure of cooperation.
Another problem involved Jimmy making offensive comments and taunting other students when they made a mistake while playing four-square. Someone put the problem on the class meeting agenda. The students told him how those comments hurt their feelings and made them not want to play with him. They made suggestions of things he could say to encourage people instead. Jimmy agreed to try this new skill and eventually stopped his offensive behavior. He later began to receive compliments for his good sportsmanship.
By using the principles of Positive Discipline and class meetings, everyone found that Jimmy was like any other eleven-year-old boy. He laughed when things were funny, he became angry when things didn't go his way, and he was happy when he experienced success. Most important, Jimmy learned he could change his behavior when he was taught new skills and given the opportunity to practice them in an encouraging environment.
The school personnel were extremely pleased with the tremendous impact of Positive Discipline because they had tried and failed with other discipline management programs. Jimmy was heard, helped, and is now much happier. Two years have passed and we continue to hear wonderful things about Jimmy's leadership and academic success in his middle school. He is no longer behind in reading.
I once heard a friend talk about the "Law of the Farm". If you plant corn today, you don't pick it tomorrow; it must be nurtured by water, fertilization, weeding, and sunlight. While all of Jimmy's days at our school were not wonderful, the seeds for success were planted and nourished. Jimmy is not perfect, but who is? As Rudolf Dreikurs said, "Don't work for perfection. Work for improvement." We have achieved so much improvement at Rocky Mount Elementary School through Positive Discipline, not only with Jimmy, but with all our students and school personnel.
Performance often dips when new skills are first practiced. When this happens there is often a desire to return to the old ways-especially when looking for a quick fix. Learning new skills takes time. Mistakes truly are wonderful opportunities to learn. When we remember this, we don't get discouraged as we wait for the long-range results (the harvest) of learning and practicing new skills.