Relationships and rules are the connections and guard rails of school communities. In schools that intentionally build strong, respectful relationships, rules become less necessary. Nevertheless, it is essential to have the rule that no one in school is allowed to act in a way that interferes with another’s right to a safe and supportive learning environment. This rule lays the foundation for a caring school culture and is easy to understand. It applies to everyone in the school – adults and children. When adults have strong, respectful relationships with their students, they are best able to coach children’s behavior to align with that foundational expectation. It’s important to remember that no one, teachers included, is able to behave respectfully and kindly at all times, but having the shared intention to do so helps each individual shape their behavior to support the school community.
Occasionally a teacher needs help with a particular student whose behavior is interfering with the classroom atmosphere or activity, despite the teacher’s repeated coaching. The teacher may be concerned about another student’s safety, or they may have become so frustrated that their coaching is no longer effective; they fear they won’t remain respectful in dealing with the student. When a teacher needs help, one common systemic approach in schools is to send the student “to the office,” where another adult is available to help coach the child.
When a child is sent to the office, it is usually because he or she 1) has been chronically socializing with friends during class, 2) has done or said something hurtful or disrespectful, 3) has disobeyed a direct order from the teacher, 4) has made noises or acted in a way that disrupted the class, or 5) has physically hurt or threatened violence to someone or their belongings. All of these behaviors are disruptive to the learning community in a classroom, and so are “against the rules.” In the years I worked in the role of the adult in the office to whom the child was sent, I developed a procedure for helping the child learn from having broken the rules. Here is the procedure, which can be used by any school administrator or lead teacher.
First: Ask the child why they are there. Have them tell you the story of why the teacher sent them to the office. Don’t be distracted by the child’s reports of others’ bad behavior, but keep the focus on the behavior of the child in front of you. Keep in mind that the child will be angry and/or frightened and needs to be heard. Often a child’s bad behavior was provoked by another, and they need to tell about that, but your focus is ultimately on what the child in front of you did that precipitated him or her being sent to you. Sometimes it helps to ask, “What did you do right before the teacher sent you to the office?”
Second: Ask the child why what they did caused a problem. If learning in a safe and supportive environment is the goal, how did their behavior interfere with that? It’s important for the child to understand that whatever they did kept the teacher from teaching or kept a student or students from learning. It is easier for some children than others to accept responsibility for their actions. Many children are very afraid of “getting into trouble,” but if they are minimizing or denying the impact of their behavior, you can point out that they are already “in trouble,” and working to improve the situation will help get them “out of trouble.”
Third: Ask the child what they want to have happen next and what they can do to make that happen. This usually involves making some kind of apology, and most children recognize this with little or no prompting. You can offer to go with the child to make the apology if you have a sense that he or she will have trouble following through, but it is more effective if the child can make the apology independently, as he or she will feel more competent and the teacher will be more impressed with his or her courage. Whether a child is able to take this action independently is also a function of their age. A Kindergarten student will usually need more support than a seventh grade student in making an independent apology. Help the child prepare by role playing what they are going to say to the teacher and/or the student or students to whom they owe the apology.
Nota Bene: If the child’s behavior involved any violence or threat of violence, remind the child that violence will not be tolerated, ever. In the schools where I worked, violence could result in suspension or dismissal, and it’s important for children to know whatever the consequence may be of further violent actions or words. If the child has broken or stolen something, he or she will need to replace that, in addition to apologizing.
Fourth: Ask the child to write a letter to you (the person in the office), explaining what they did, why it caused a problem, and how they will avoid the troublesome behavior again. It is useful to have a conversation with the child about their plan to change future behavior, as making a behavioral change is much more difficult than the child imagines it to be. As the adult, you may have suggestions for supporting the child’s efforts to change behavior. (Obviously, children who are not yet able to write cannot take this step, but giving the child a strategy for what to do instead of what they did is a very helpful coaching move.) The letter must be signed by the child and the parents and returned to you by the start of the next school day. Make sure the child’s homeroom teacher or advisor knows about this requirement, so they can support the child in the process of writing. Often once the child leaves the office, they find that they can’t quite remember what the letter was supposed to contain. A trusted adult at school can help discuss with the child the plan for behavioral change.
Fifth: Tell the child that you will be calling their parents to let them know what happened. Tell the child that you will be following up with the teacher to ensure that the apology is made appropriately. Occasionally, I would ask the child to call their parents from my office, especially if their actions had been hurtful to others. Having to call your parents, in front of a school authority, and say what you have done creates a powerful and memorable moment that can be an excellent deterrent to repeating the hurtful behavior – no one wants to make a call like that twice!
Sixth: Follow through. Touch base with the teacher who sent the child to be sure that the apology was made. Call the parent and explain what happened, asking for support to ensure the child writes the letter. Make sure you receive the letter. Keep a copy on file. If the behavior is chronic or you deem it particularly of concern (especially if violence is involved), it is wise to write a formal follow-up letter to the parents that states what happened and that you are confident the child will not repeat the action. If you need to warn parents formally of possible suspension or dismissal if the behavior reoccurs, include that warning in the letter. In the phone call to the parents I would let them know if I were going to send an official letter, and I would reassure them that I would keep the letter only until the end of the year and would not put a copy in the child’s permanent record.
Seventh: Once you receive the child’s letter, have a final conversation with the child. Let him or her know that you talked to the teacher, that you received their letter, that you know what their plan for the future is, that you will be checking to see how things are going, and, finally, that the event is now closed. Children need to know that you forgive them for their mistake and that they have a fresh start. Each day in school should be a new day, a day open to learning and belonging.