Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Collaborative Problem Solving Can Transform School Discipline: Adults, Students, and Schools Benefit When Behavioral Challenges Are Viewed through Accurate Lenses and Students Participate in Resolving Them

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Collaborative Problem Solving Can Transform School Discipline: Adults, Students, and Schools Benefit When Behavioral Challenges Are Viewed through Accurate Lenses and Students Participate in Resolving Them

Article excerpt

We've been looking in all the wrong places for answers to solving student discipline issues. Over the past 40 to 50 years, we theorized that poor parental discipline caused children's challenging behavior. During the same time, psychiatric diagnoses became a standard way to understand, communicate about, and categorize challenging behavior and is a critical component in placement determinations for special education services. Coinciding with these developments is a rather troubling trend: Public school discipline rates are roughly double today what they were in the 1970s and have never been higher. Correlation does not equal causation, but the possibility that these trends are associated can't be overlooked. We're compelled to take a fresh look at what we're thinking about and doing to behaviorally challenging students.

When schools believe that lax parental discipline explains a child's misbehavior, educators are less likely to consider alternative explanations for the misbehavior and the full range of interventions that could be implemented at school. And when psychiatric diagnoses are invoked to "explain" behavior problems, there's a tendency to pathologize kids, implying that the "problem" resides within the child and that it's the child who needs fixing. Diagnoses often distract adults from identifying the true factors underlying challenging behaviors and the specific conditions in which those behaviors are most likely to occur. Indeed, there's a tendency to confuse diagnoses with explanations:

  Teacher: Why does Billy have a restricted range of
  interests, exhibit repetitive, stereotypical behaviors,
  and have such difficulties in his social interactions?
  Diagnostician: Because he has Asperger's disorder.
  Teacher: How do you know he has Asperger's disorder?
  Diagnostician: Because he has a restricted range of
  interests, exhibits repetitive, stereotypical behaviors,
  and has significant difficulties in his social interactions.

Fortunately, something else has occurred over the past 40 to 50 years: the unequivocal finding that behaviorally challenging kids are lacking crucial developmental skills. Rather than simply stating that a student "has oppositional defiant disorder," for example, adults can now consider, discuss, and identify the "lagging skills" that contribute to the behaviors (refusing to do as he's told, throwing tantrums, and defying adult rules and requests) that comprise the disorder. Thus, we can now say things like, "He has tremendous difficulty appreciating the effect of his behavior on others," or "He has a lot of trouble taking into account situational factors that would require an adjustment in a plan of action," or "He has difficulty handling unpredictability, ambiguity, uncertainty, and novelty." Lagging skills provide a far more informative, compassionate, productive set of lenses than do diagnoses.

Lagging skills are particularly problematic--and likely to lead to challenging behavior--when they're demanded by the environment. A student who has difficulty shifting from one activity or task to another isn't likely to run into difficulty when transitions aren't being demanded by the environment. He is likely to run into trouble (and exhibit challenging behavior) when the environment does demand transitions. A student who has difficulty initiating conversations or entering groups isn't likely to run into difficulty until the environment demands these skills. These notions lead to several important realities:

* Challenging students aren't always challenging. They're challenging when the demands being placed upon them outstrip their skills to respond to those demands.

* Challenging episodes are actually highly predictable.

How can such thinking influence school discipline programs? If students with challenging behavior lack crucial developmental skills, then we can respond to their difficulties in much the same way that we respond to academic learning challenges. …

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