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Monday, March 4, 2013

The Road Less Travelled

After a presentation I made, some asked me if discipline was ok to use in bullying prevention.  Of course it was I reassured him.  I was arguing in my talk that discipline by itself was woefully inadequate in addressing the  the problem of bullying.  I advocated for shifting from a criminal justice mindset to an educational mindset.  Since discipline for bullying after it happens is still something that needs to be addressed,  I was glad the person sought clarification.  Schools cannot  ignore acts of bullying and must hold students accountable for their actions, so traditional discipline as it is typically thought of still has a place in comprehensive bullying prevention.

In my book, I propose the term "discipline in the right climate" to avoid to false dichotomy of traditional discipline versus no discipline.  This alternative approach reclaims the word discipline from its Latin roots.  Discipline means learning and as the word disciple means learner.   As a principal, I based the decisions I made for " discipline" on a very simple question: what decision will best insure that the student will learn from the experience and prevent it from happening again.  Answering this question required me to know the student ( background, motivation, relationships etc.), know the environment where the problem occurred and know the resources we had to supervise and or support the student.  Did this require more work and judgement on my part and the part of staff? Would it have been safer and easier to follow a prescribed one size fits all response? The answer to both questions is yes.   Perhaps I did choose the road less travelled as Frost would say, but I also found that it made all the difference, in that my decisions involved a variety of approaches used in various combinations so the student didn't just learn "not" what to do, but learned why he/she did it,   how what he/ she did affected others.  The student could start to acquire skills that would allow him/her to make better choices in the future.  Such an approach also leaves no doubt in the student's mind that he/she is not "a bully" but rather someone who made a mistake, someone who is a work in progress and could and would do better in the future.

This example of an alternative approach to bullying shows that the current conflict between the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program and Positive Behavioral Intervention Support is ultimately a splitting of hairs that detracts from a more productive discussion.  In brief, PBIS claims that OBPP advocates using negative consequences to kids who bully others.  They instead advocate for using positive reinforcement for kids who follow the rules of respecting others. Of course to most people the positive approach makes the most sense.  This is a misperception because it over focuses on just one small part of OBPP that says that there should be some type of negative consequence for acts of bullying.  Most of OBPP however advocates using data, educating students and staff about the problem, building classroom communities and community awareness and support.  The goal of all of that is to prevent and reduce the number of bullying incidents.  Given the choice of the two approaches, I think that OBPP provides a greater flexibility and potential for transforming a school environment.

Both programs however operate on the premise that bullying in schools should be addressed via a "program".   School change is really about culture change and neither program or any program can be added to the status quo and expect to change the culture of schools.  True change cannot happen by following a program but requires strong shared leadership, strategic actions, and a commitment to learn and do what it takes to educate students.  This means that students  need to develop the skills, knowledge and attitudes for being empowered, caring and responsible citizens.  Schools that go this route are presented with less of a clear cut path than either of the roads that PBIS or OBPP promise.  This approach requires new ways of thinking and acting, many new and varied tools to use, and ultimately changes every member of the school community for the better-which is just another way of saying everyone learns together as they move forward together.

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