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Order in the classroom! New school works to craft a meaningful discipline policy that works

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 If you were a teacher, what would you do you do if a second grader won’t quiet down during story time? What if a third grader wants to go home sick, but she’s not actually sick?  What if one of your students hits one of his classmates?  How would you handle that?

The Boggs School is brand new.  It’s a K-4 charter on Detroit’s east side.  They’ve got small classrooms but a big, unique mission, which is, in principal Julia Putnam’s words, “to nurture creative, critical thinkers who contribute to the well-being of their communities.”

A big part of what educators do is maintain order in the classroom. That's important because if you fail at that task, kids don't learn.  Maintaining order can mean keeping kids on task, keeping class clowns from taking over, and it can also mean disciplining kids with more egregious behavior. To maintain order at the Boggs School, the staff uses a method called responsive classroom.

“Responsive classroom is just being responsive to the developmental needs of children. One of those developmental requirements is that punishment should not be punitive or permissive and that there needs to be a logical consequence,” Putnam explains.

So, instead of suspending a first grader for punching one of their classmates, the logical consequence approach says: Let’s find a way for the student to learn from their mistake while preserving his or dignity.  You hurt somebody’s feelings by saying something mean, you fix it with an apology.  

“Because when it comes from a place of, you did this bad thing and I’m really mad at you. And so this really unpleasant thing is gonna happen to you because I’m really mad at you. The internalization of that is really damaging emotionally and psychologically,” said Putnam.

And research from UCLA’s Civil Rights Project suggests delinquency and aggressive behaviors are triggered by academic disengagement. Especially among black males, who are often disproportionately suspended or expelled.  

A mother of a first-grader at the Boggs School, who spoke anonymously for this story has a different idea about how students should be disciplined.

“There was one instance where my child was punched in the testicles. And there was another instance where he was punched in the chin and the chest,” she said.

She’d like to see a tougher approach with the kids who are really disruptive.

“It’s a little core group that seems to absorb a lot of the teachers attention and it doesn’t appear to me that the other kids are able to get instruction,” she said.

Principal Julia Putnam says she understands where this mother is coming from. But she says the school’s discipline policy is a work in progress. And she says it’s especially challenging when kids are coming from families with very different ideas about how to deal with conflict.

“Some kids who are taught to use their fist to survive if they feel upset or threatened and some parents who are teaching their kids that you don’t hit ever so when you mix those kids and conflict occurs,” Putnam said.

Six weeks into the school year, it looks like nurturing creative, critical thinkers is no easy feat.  It’s a constant conversation with very few easy answers.    

Zak Rosen is spending the entire year at the Boggs School.  You can hear part one of his series here.