School discipline – how should it operate?

school disciplineOne view expressed in The Times newspaper in relation to the 2011 English riots is that “these disgraceful scenes were perpetuated by people who have not experienced any meaningful consequences for misbehaviour at school ” And so the spotlight is falling on school discipline.

Some teacher unions are saying that badly behaved pupils are running wild as staff feel  powerless to discipline them. In relation to school discipline, teachers complain that their authority is undermined both by government and by parents. Sometimes the latter have been known to aggressively come into the school to complain about teachers who dare criticise their children let alone try to discipline them.

Polarised attitudes to school discipline

Attitudes to responding to misbehaviour seem to have polarised between the hard conservative right and soft liberal left. Those on the right of politics bemoan about school discipline in what they see as a breakdown of authority. They would probably like to see a return to Victorian values such as shown in the phrases ‘Spare the rod and spoil the child.’ ‘The little savages need civilising.’ Harsh draconian remedies may chime with a mood of resentment and anger. This is an unashamedly punitive attitude, components of which can be seen in the tabloid press, who scream for a blaming, punishing, labelling approach to misbehaviour.

The opposite attitude and one that historically has been probably a reaction against it, is one of ‘hands-off’ often accompanied by feelings of guilt regarding punishment which is seen as a violation of human rights. It is characterised by an expectation that children will thrive and behave in socially acceptable ways if they are given support and trust because of an innate goodness in their makeup.

According to this view the emphasis should be on support involving being reasonable, finding excuses, and trying to rescue the person from their problematic pattern of behaviour.

Psychologists on school discipline

However, psychologists tell us that acceptable behaviour needs to be consistently rewarded and unacceptable behaviour consistently earn disapproval, if social learning is to take place. In other words children are not born socialized. They find out how to behave properly. They have to learn to co-operate with others. They need to be trained to respect other people’s rights.

But to achieve this, teachers need to combine control with support, firmness with kindness. Control, means boundary-setting, discipline, and firmness; and  support involves nurture, encouragement, and kindness. These two things, control and support, are not actually opposites but two different dimensions of social correction.

School discipline from a spiritual perspective

From a spiritual perspective, Swedenborg writes about support in terms of a charitable heart. However, for him a charitable heart is not one at all unless it is informed by good sense of the head. This is his philosophy of the ‘heavenly marriage of good and truth’. One without the other lacks spiritual life. In his book Doctrine of Charity (section 163) he writes about those administering rules fairly are behaving charitably even when inflicting penalties. He compares this with a parent who from love firmly corrects bad behaviour.

School discipline as supportive control

Showing supportive control is entirely possible. It means exhibiting kind firmness. When this ethos is present within the school culture, teachers do not noticeably yell at the children. This combination of control and support tends to result in students acting in an orderly rather than an unruly way both within the school and whilst leaving it at then end of the day.

Such a teacher will be authoritative rather than authoritarian, responsible rather than negligent, empowering rather than only caring, and will foster a cooperative environment.

It doesn’t mean telling pupils that things are wrong in a self-righteous or over-severe manner, for in this circumstance the youngster will probably treat what the teacher says with scepticism or hostility, and especially if the adult is not following the rules him or herself. Neither does it involve failing to notice what sanctions are available.

Pupils need to be obliged to face the consequences of their actions.  What kids take for granted might be viewed as privileges that can be withdrawn rather than rights to be respected regardless of conduct.

Copyright 2011 Stephen Russell-Lacy
Author of  Heart, Head & Hands  Swedenborg’s perspective on emotional problems

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