I am super proud to be part of a team of people who are committed to taking a collaborative and contemporary approach to working with teenagers in our community. For two years, judges, juvenile justice employees, school officials, community program providers, police department employees, and parents have come together to work toward the best systems of care for teens who are having challenges.
Recently in the news we have had side-by-side examples of what kind of discipline works well with teenagers and what kind does not. I am not making any judgments on those who choose one or the other, but I do think it is important that we consider our soon-to-be-adults and the environment and structures they are growing up in. I also want to disclose that I do not have all the details of both situations (few of us do) so I am only commenting on the general situation and not the individuals involved.
In South Carolina a teenager apparently was very disruptive in the classroom and was removed from the class by a school resource officer. SRO is a fairly new position in our school systems and is the direct result of the increased number of school shootings and violence in schools. According to the research published in “Two Wrongs Don’t Make A Right,” the response in many schools throughout the country “has been to rely on law enforcement agencies and the use of zero-tolerance measures” in an effort to ensure a safer environment for our youth. Unfortunately, this has not been the effective tool for reducing violence and creating a better learning environment for students that we hoped it might be. Some believe it has been a harmful process of criminalization of young people and has created what is known and referred to as the School-to-Prison Pipeline. See more here: http://www.pbs.org/wnet/tavissmiley/tsr/education-under-arrest/school-to-prison-pipeline-fact-sheet/
Critics of the students’ behavior have asked what else could the response have been to such a disrespectful and obstinate adolescent? That’s a difficult question to answer because we don’t know the history of the relationship between the teacher and student, the student’s mental health or situation away from the classroom, but there are a number of conflict interventions that can deescalate even the most difficult conflicts among teenagers.
1.) Utilize Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports
-WAIT. It sounds odd but when I am in a large group of teens and someone (or many of them) are disruptive I say “I’ll wait!” It takes a few minutes at first for them to settle down but after a few minutes of silently waiting for them to finish- they get quiet. When it happens again, I say “I’ll wait” and it takes less time for them to settle down. I don’t have to tell them to stop what they are doing, I simply wait and they get there.
-Reflective listening. Students just want to be heard. Give them a minute to be heard and share back with them what you think they are saying (and feeling) and that could be all it takes to regain their attention. If not, assign a time for them to be heard and the conflict to be resolved.
2.) Restorative justice approaches
There are too many of these to explain in this article but schools and communities around the nation are having success implementing these models that include Restorative Circles and Mediations. Read one schools success here: Breaking the School-to-Prison Pipeline: Rethinking 'Zero Tolerance'
3.) Support training and education for Resource Officers who work directly with adolescents
In DC, a unique and unconventional approach to conflict was use to break up a fight between two girls. http://www.examiner.com/article/dc-cop-dance-off-cop-busts-a-move-to-bust-up-a-fight-a-community-policing. The response by the teens to the officer was what we want from our young people and the lesson learned is hopefully one that will last! Sometimes doing the least expected thing gets their attention and changes the situation.
I can’t imagine how difficult classroom discipline is for teachers and the pressure to teach a standardized curriculum is such a challenge. However, I work with so many teens who are feeling an equal amount of pressure to learn and meet the standards set in front of them. Although implementing unconventional interventions takes time away from being in the classroom, the incident in South Carolina provides a great reminder to teach conflict resolution skills, something we all desperately need. We need to rethink what lessons are the most important for our young people and how to model desired skills for them.
We commonly remind ourselves at TASC that “hurt people hurt people.” It’s a reminder that students often act out of their pain. But it’s also true that “loved people love people.” The next generation will grow up to love people if they are loved and not hurt. It’s a big job but if we work together change can happen. Let’s dance!!
In this together,
Dawn Spragg, MS LPC is the Director of Therapeutic Service and Co-Founder of the Teen Action and Support Center (with husband Greg). Dawn has spent 20+ years working directly with teenagers and their families. She has a unique perspective on parenting teens and helping families during this critical time of growth and development.
Schedule Dawn Spragg, MS LPC to speak firstname.lastname@example.org