Love Not Control

When I was an undergrad, I had a professor who encouraged us to use positive reinforcement for classroom management. He suggested to look for a student who was doing the right thing and say, “I like how Johnny is standing in line,” or “I like the way Johnny is sitting quietly,” or “Thank you, Johnny, for keeping your hands to yourself.”

I piped up (it was before my filter was securely in place like it is most of the time now) and said, “Yeah and then everyone wants to beat up Johnny.”

I remember the professor paused and then asked me if I’d “say more about that.”

I glanced up from the doodles in the margin of my notebook. I didn’t realize I said anything interesting. The professor wasn’t mad or offended, rather, he appeared curious.

I went on to explain how there are more important things to do in a day than to control behavior. By using sound instructional practices, building respectful relationships with students, and focusing on purposeful and worthwhile experiences students will be engaged. As engagement and respect increase discipline issues decrease. Then we don’t have to manipulate or shame students into behaving.

“You’re right,” he said.

I adjusted my rose colored glasses. A few months later I stood in my own classroom. Although I made more than my share of mistakes that year, I’m grateful a public penal discipline system wasn’t among them.

Although my filter is now secure, my convictions are not any less than they were all those years ago in undergrad. I like to think we’ve evolved as educators. Sixteen years later I shouldn’t be fighting the battle of public discipline systems. (And just because they’re on a SmartBoard doesn’t make them any better.)

I have four children. Collectively, they have been subjected to 18 public penal discipline systems. They have fallen off of apple trees, moved down stoplights, pulled sticks, flipped cards, dropped stars, and lost maps. They have dealt with collecting cones and avoiding alligators.

I think it is also safe to say in our house we deal with behaviors that are a tad more drastic than other families. This is part of life when you have children who have hard histories without you. The thing is we’ve never asked our children to chart their choices or pull a stick.

Yet, they’ve unlearned severe behaviors and have relearned appropriate and courteous behaviors. They’ve maintained (and even regained) their dignity. We made a choice to help our kids find intrinsic motivation for doing the right thing rather than being manipulated into compliance.

That’s not to say there aren’t consequences. There are. Just ask any of them. They’ll tell you: “All choices have consequences. When you make a pleasant choice, pleasant things come your way. If you don’t, then it’s not fun.”

Controlling behavior wasn’t the most important thing we did when we adopted our older children. Loving them was. We didn’t want them to behave out of fear or shame. We wanted them to behave because it was worth it, because they made the choice to do the right thing. They learned to behave because they learned we loved them.

They tested our love. You don’t need to know the gory details of the tests. Let’s just suffice it to say that I know hard behaviors. I also know behavior can be relearned. New habits can form.

Our kids learned to control their own behavior because they were respected and trusted.

They are still learning. (Aren’t we all?)

I just wish they were given the dignity in their classrooms that they’ve been given at home. I can’t help to think of all of the kids who aren’t given dignity at home. Shouldn’t school be a place every child is treated with dignity? This will happen when all teachers trust and respect kids to do the right thing, rather than humiliating them into compliance.

I wish all children were loved more the controlled. This is how we change the world.

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