Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Responding to Tantrums in the Classroom

Slate recently published an article by Alan Kazdin on how parents should react when their kids fly off the handle (hat tip: Alexander Russo). The article has obvious implications for what teachers should do when a student loses control in the classroom. And I'm not sure that the author would recommend the same course of action in such a circumstance, because the stakes are much higher and the external factors more complex.

Ultimately, the author recommends what he terms the "parking ticket" strategy: the parent reacts by calmly informing the child that a certain (previously discussed) privilege has been taken away, and then leaves the room. It's a balance of the desire to mete out punishment with the parent's job of being a good role model. The calm response and the immediate punishment send the message that the behavior is neither acceptable nor appropriate. In the short run, the child is sent a message; in the long run the child should act more calmly.

The rationale behind the recommendation makes sense, and seems to be the best option. Exploding in anger may truncate the behavior, but serves as a bad example; calmly explaining why the child should behave differently sets a good example but fails to address the behavior in the short-run; and ignoring it has similar implications.

This works at home. The child isn't allowed to watch TV that night, the parent sits in the living room and reads a magazine, the temper tantrum in the kitchen fizzles out, and soon all is back to normal. But I'm not sure the same strategy will work in a classroom. The idea of a "parking ticket" -- an immediate, but calmly delivered, consequence -- is still solid, but the teacher can't just leave the room until the child has calmed down. Furthermore, the teacher needs to take into account how the other children react to and what they learn from the incident.

In this way, it's even more important that the teacher set a good example -- screaming at the student inevitably sends the message that screaming and anger are acceptable. But, at the same time, the importance of indicating that the behavior is unacceptable and will not be tolerated is elevated as well. If Johhny starts screaming at the teacher and the teacher calmly tells him to be quiet and then waits five minutes for him to calm down, what are the other children supposed to think? How else could they interpret it other than "when I scream, nobody gets mad at me and we stop class for five minutes."

In other words, the immediate reaction is probably more necessary for the sake of preventing copycats than for conveying any sort of message to that particular student. In this way, a modified version of the "parking ticket" may be the best adjustment. The teacher should still remain calm (step 1), and should still immediately assign a pre-determined consequence (step 2), but the student should be the one to leave the room (step 3).

I see two problems with this: 1.) What happens when the child refuses to leave the room? (now the situation has been escalated) and 2.) Some places (e.g. NY) don't allow students to be removed from the room (because they're being deprived of their right to an education).

Not to mention that a school has to decide what to do with the child after they've left the room. At any rate, this seems like a reasonable strategy to me, but I might be missing something. Most of the books I've read, videos I've watched, and advice I've received about discipline is in line with steps 1 and 2 (though I can't honestly say they're in line with the wishes of some of the administrators at my school -- one of whom liked to say "you have to make them fear you, it's the only way"), but I'm unsure about step 3.

1 comment:

Roger Sweeny said...

At my high school, the freshman, sophomore, etc. classes each have a "dean," a teacher who in exchange for a 2/5 class load and a small stipend does all the fun class things and also handles the discipline.

"Step three" for us means the student is told to report to the Dean's Office. A phone call down precedes him/her. Detention that day is pretty much an automatic consequence. If the appropriate dean has a class, another dean will handle it.

Failure to leave when a teacher says to is a "refusal to comply" with a school official, an offense in itself. If the student just will not go, a phone call to the main office will bring a dean and at least one other official to escort the student out (or, if necessary, physically remove the student).

The system works pretty well.

(If NY won't let students be removed, it has a terribly foolish--and foolishly terrible--law/regulation. The fact that NY's teachers unions don't fight it speaks extremely poorly of them.)

Traditionally, the punishment after detention has been suspension, but as is well known, for some students, this is reward rather than punishment. And it means the student misses possibly educational class time. So we're now experimenting with Saturday detention. Right now, it's two hours of study hall and two hours of cleaning the school, 8AM - noon.