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“Problem Children” Biggest Problem is Lack of Self-Awareness

October 30, 2017

Last Tuesday’s NYTimes column in the “Fixes” section by Suzanne Bouffard described two successful approaches to student discipline that emerged independently from the same source source. Called the Collaborative Problem Solving (C.P.S.), Ms. Bouffard reported that this seemingly permissive approach was developed in the late 1990s by Dr. Ross Greene, now the director of a nonprofit called Lives in the Balance, and later expanded upon by Stuart Ablon, a psychologist who runs the Think:Kids program at Massachusetts General Hospital. It works like this:

An adult and child collaborate to understand why the child is struggling and what to do about it, using a strategy called “Plan B.” Plan B starts with the child stating a concern. Next the adult does the same. They then brainstorm realistic solutions that address both parties’ concerns. That method diverges from more typical responses, like when an adult tries to exert her will by applying consequences (“Plan A”) or lets go of the expectation for a specific behavior (“Plan C”).

As a Buddhist practitioner for the past 12 years, I see this approach as being similar to an approach in reconciliation advocated by zenmaster Thich Nhat Hanh called called Beginning Anew, an approach designed to have both parties develop mutual self awareness about how their behaviors affect each other. But, as Ms. Bouffard notes, the notion of developing self-awareness as a means of changing behavior flies in the face of conventional wisdom and conventional thinking by adults:

Approaching misbehavior this way runs counter to many educators’ instincts. Deciding to share power rather than impose it requires a mind-set shift. One might see that as “giving in to the child.” But what would be the point of punishing a child who literally could not sit still? The C.P.S. conversation taught Jayden that his perspective mattered and that using calm problem solving pays off. It also kept him and his classmates learning.

As a high school disciplinarian for six years, I quickly learned that in the minds of many teachers anything that failed to punish the child explicitly was viewed as “giving in”: that every time a child was sent to the office and there were no “automatic consequences” they felt betrayed by the administration. In the minds of some teachers, sending a child to the office was a power play and if I failed to use my power to assign a detention or take some kind of punitive action I was failing to support them. In the minds of other teachers, a trip to the office was intended to provide a place for the student to collect their thoughts and for me to arrange a conference with both parties. As a disciplinarian, I had to learn the expectations of the teacher and adjust accordingly. But is struck me that the same was true of the students: they, too, had to gain an understanding of what each teacher expected.

Ms. Bouffard’s article was triggered by the fact that preschools are suspending children at an alarming rate and, as a result, legislators are looking for changes in approach. She writes:

Early childhood education can be an invaluable opportunity for learning social and emotional skills. But when teachers repeatedly punish young children, their efforts can cause lifelong harm… Nearly 1 in 10 preschoolers is suspended or expelled for behavior problems. Their infractions — generally hitting, throwing things or swearing — need to be addressed, but educators are recognizing that removing 3- and 4-year-olds from classrooms is not the answer. It doesn’t teach children how to behave differently, and it often makes matters worse.

Young children who are suspended are often the ones who need the most social and academic support — and they end up missing opportunities to get it. Early suspension predicts disengagement from school and dropping-out. And the fact that African-American preschoolers are far more likely than white children to be suspended raises serious issues of equity and access to educational opportunity. As states like Illinois and Connecticut pass legislation prohibiting or restricting expulsion from state-funded preschools, teachers desperately need better options for handling misbehavior.

I am appalled at the consequences of imposing the will of adults on children who are misbehaving, an approach that is often used in so-called “no excuses” schools. I am especially appalled when the adult’s will is based on unquestioning adherence to rules that cannot be readily followed by children who have special needs or who come from homes where they have experienced childhood trauma. Here’s hoping that the legislation adopted in states seeking to reduce preschool suspensions leads to the development of self-awareness on the part of students at an early age and mutual respect between teachers and parents at all grade levels.

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  1. December 7, 2017 at 2:52 am

    Thank you for this post. I was just introduced to this notion to other day, and the change to my relationship with my child and the tough times we have was nearly immediate. That’s certainly not to say that it just immediately fixed everything, but it feels like it has by far the best chance of truly helping. Kids do well if they can.

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