When prospective parents visit RCLS, they often want to know how discipline is handled. What happens when a student misbehaves? How is bullying deterred? What expectations do teachers have for behavior in the classroom?
These questions seem to originate in past experiences or in perceptions about how discipline is administered (or not administered) in other school settings, so when I talk about the positive learning environment that characterizes RCLS or about the idea that student discipline begins with the relationship between student and teacher, I often wonder if my response holds any water. Sure, there are moments when students require discipline by way of experiencing consequences, but can it be true that an entire school is characterized by grace at the same time that high standards for behavior are held for the classroom?
It is true. In fact, if you ask an RCLS school parent to talk about the learning environment in which his/her son or daughter spends the school day, and you’ll likely hear something like this:
“Kids love it here!”
“My son loves coming to school and is sad when the weekend comes.”
“RCLS is a happy, healthy place to learn and grow. Students are challenged here, but they find the support they need to rise to the challenge.”
RCLS faculty and staff are grateful to partner with families who share an appreciation for a safe, structured learning environment and the classroom behaviors that make it so. RCLS parents and educators, alike, hold high value for virtues such as respect, honesty, and work ethic. This, in turn, shapes how we respectfully regard one another in the hallways of this central Rochester school.
Still, there is that important question: how is discipline handled?
The short answer is that discipline is handled in an atmosphere of grace that encourages respect, repentance, and resilience. The longer answer is that discipline is handled in a positive learning environment that is shaped, in part, by two related tools: a responsive classroom and a common language.
A Responsive Classroom
At RCLS, we know that words have power. Particularly, we believe that words are a means by which we can help students imagine themselves as they could be. Dr. Paula Denton (2013), author of The Power of Our Words, explains, “Helping students form and own a vision of themselves achieving success is a fundamental job of teachers, and language is a key tool for doing this” (p. 35). The responsive learning environment is one in which a teacher encourages academic engagement and fosters development awareness (metacognition) through positive interactions and effective behavior management. These are the outcome of an environment in which a teacher practices listening and language intentionally.
Listening to a child is the best way a teacher or parent can know a child so as to teach her. According to Dr. Denton (2012), there are at least two benefits to listening well enough to a child to understand what makes her tick:
1. Relationship: A child who feels like she belongs and is important to the classroom community (or family) is more likely to be motivated to learn (p. 75). In other words, a “heard” child is a motivated child. Paraphrasing a child’s thoughts back to her has the added benefit of helping the child develop a more sophisticated language with which to communicate––about academic content, personal experiences, or otherwise.
2. The Opportunity for Modeling: When a teacher or parent listens, he/she models good communication and relationship skills for the child. In the classroom, a teacher “sets a tone of respect and empathy that are fundamental to a strong community” when he or she pauses to hear a child or paraphrases what a child has to say (p. 77). As this is practiced at RCLS, the classroom community is one of care and concern. Therein, students are safe to learn.
If listening is the foundation of a positive classroom environment, language is the building block by which that environment is built. The content and tone of the language we use with children is the difference between a discouraging school experience and a grace-filled, encouraging one. Step into a responsive classroom and you’ll hear at least three types of language.
1. Reinforcing language: This is language that reinforces what a student is doing well and enables him to build on his strengths. Dr. Denton offers this advice for speaking reinforcing language to children: “Name specific, concrete behaviors: when the purpose is to celebrate with children, general praise can do the job. But when our purpose is to instruct or foster change and growth, naming concrete, specific positives is more effective” (p. 97).
Parent tip: Instead of “I noticed how hard you worked,” offer specific information such as, “You worked on this a long time, and when you didn’t know an answer, you tried a different strategy. That is good work.”
2. Reminding language: Developmentally, every child need reminders to successfully navigate a busy school day. (Aren’t children much like adults, overwhelmed by busy work days, in this way?) In a responsive environment, teachers and parents equip children to “pull up their memory of established expectations,” and they “then allow children to decide on an action based on those expectations. Reminding language supports children in being mindful of “what to do before they take action” (Denton, p. 112).
Parent tip: Instead of “Don’t interrupt Sarah,” use language that encourages awareness of one’s own responsibilities: “What can you do if you have an idea to share but someone else is talking?”
3. Redirecting language: Inevitably, children will go off track one way or another. This is when they need to hear clear commands. In this case, teachers and parents can “provide the wise external control that keeps children on track when their self-control is failing them. It provides reassurance and a sense of safety, letting children know that the grownups are taking care of them” (p. 133). These commands can be offered using positive “do” language rather than a more negative “don’t” word choice and should, again, be clear and direct.
Parent tip: Instead of saying “Don’t leave your mess” or contending that “This table is a mess,” tell children to “Clean off this table before we go outside.”
A Common Language
The language of the Responsive Classroom is readily apparent in RCLS’s early elementary grades. After all, those are the years in which students are still learning what it looks and feels like to be in a community of learners in a structured classroom setting. Ideally, middle school students have that worked out, but anyone who has taught or parented through the middle school years knows that stage of learning has its own…(ahem) peculiarities.
The great differences in the needs and developmental stages between a 1st grader, for example, and a 7th grader are, in part, why RCLS has worked to develop a simple, straight-forward set of guidelines for behavior expectations––a “common language” that will serve to reinforce, remind, and redirect students from ages 3-13. Together with the language of RCLS’s recently annotated mission statement, the “common language” of our behavior guidelines offers a grace-centered, community-building set of words that explicitly encourage grace and goodness in our learners. Indeed, they are a tool by which we educate children who will be Grounded in Grace, Formed in Faith, and Committed to Learning for Life. As school principal Mrs. Lagerwaard explains,
Striving to incorporate this common language in our everyday routines [aids] in our awareness and strengthen[s] our discipline to act with kindness toward one another in all that we say and all that we do.
The “rules” are simple:
Each of these guidelines, specific enough to shape particular behaviors but broad enough to be applied in various circumstances, is practiced a little differently at each grade and stage. To “take care of myself” as a 2nd-grader, for example, means to wash hands to stay healthy or to mind one’s own books and classroom materials to enable learning. As a 6th-grader, it means that and more. To “take care of others” as a kindergarten student means sharing a crayon with a classmate who has lost hers, but as an 8th-grader, it means encouraging a discouraged teammate at a soccer game or serving in a local charity effort. At the center of our reinforcing and reminding language, these guidelines and our annotated mission statement dramatize what it means to live out the mission of RCLS, a mission meant to prepare students to succeed and serve in the broader world.
We are, again, so grateful for the parents who partner with RCLS in this significant work. Grace. Faith. Learning for Life. May God be glorified. May the world see.
May these words of my mouth and this meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight, Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer. Psalm 19:14 NIV
Want to learn more? Ask your child’s teacher. We’re all excited about this renewed sense of mission and community in our school, and we’d love our parents to be “in the know” with our common language. We hope that what we've offered here will be helpful in your own efforts with your children.
If you’re not yet a part of RCLS and want Grace, Faith, and Learning for Life for your own child, please contact us at www.rcls.net/visit. We’d love to welcome you to visit our learning environment, where the foundation matters.
Denton, P. (2013). The power of our words. Turner Falls, MA: Center for Responsive Schools.