Interview with Marilyn Shea, Academic Dean at Brewster Academy


Why is it important to talk about discipline models?

All schools are experiencing challenges in supporting this generation of students. I believe it calls for rethinking the way we try to help them grow. Discipline systems have traditionally involved deciding what the rules are and what happens when a student breaks the rules. However, there is quite a bit of research to support that discipline systems that primarily use punishments as disincentives aren’t effective at changing behavior and can even be harmful to students or school culture.
 
The key here is that we’re not inventing totally new strategies. We’re looking at the research and adapting proven approaches. In our presentation at TABS, we plan on referencing a school of thought called 'positive discipline', perhaps best know through the work of Jane Nelsen who wrote a book called Positive Discipline. It was initially intended for parents, but educators across the country have begun to embrace her thinking too. There’s currently several organizations supporting 'Positive School Discipline'. Restorative justice is another approach that has influenced our thinking.
 
The traditional model involves asking:

  • What was the rule?
  • Who broke it?
  • How should they be punished?
  • This model is based on the belief that the fear of punishment prevents students from breaking rules. 

Our new model asks different questions:

  • Who was hurt?
  • What needs to be done to restore broken trust?
  • Who’s responsible for taking that on?

Sometimes these questions involve one student. Sometimes they involve a group. Sometimes they ask how to restore broken trust between adults and students. Our approach here is to take every incident in which a student isn’t meeting expectations and turn it into a teaching moment. Natural consequences coupled with adult interaction helps them process what needs to be done. Through this, we teach students to reflect, learn, set goals, and avoid replication.

We give them the tools to restore broken trust through action. We give them an opportunity to feel proud of themselves rather than ashamed of their mistakes. Our intention is to have this model become part of everything we do with students. The model for a drug and alcohol policy violation is guided by same kind of thinking we see in the classroom with addressing a disruptive student.


The first step must be persuading faculty that this is an important change. Some schools may need to invest more time into getting that buy-in. It wasn’t so hard at Brewster Academy because we were  already inclined toward avoiding rigidity in rules.  We just shared the research and facilitated faculty discussions. We started by changing our responses to small infractions, and teaching our community that all broken rules are reaching moments.  We established a team of faculty who have taken on the task of setting annual goals for growing our efforts so this is now completely faculty- driven.


What did you mean when you said that the traditional model of discipline can harm school culture?


There is a tipping point for any school community when adult punishment is perceived as unfair. As students receive punishments that are too heavy-handed or unfair, they respond as a group. They become less inclined to seek out adult help if they are worried about their peers. It creates an underground climate in which students are not particularly interested in following adult rules. They find pockets where they feel comfortable breaking rules. It creates a divide between students and adults that it’s important to overcome.
 
The challenge is working together to listen to students and respect what they have to say. It’s important that rules serve the community’s values and that adults are helping students see how the rules are connected to important values. It’s equally important to have substantive dialogue with students to allow their voice in the process of connecting rules and values. For example, administration sees the dress code as a way to prepare students for dressing in the real world but students want to feel their dress meets with peer approval and probably can help shape a dress code that meets adults values while also allows students to feel confident. Paying attention to how you dress and how it fits into community expectations is a big part of growing up. When students are able to see some value in the dress code and feel that their opinions are being heard, they will be less likely to violate the dress code policy, and more likely to actually engage in it. This is a fairly simple example of a minor element of a school’s community.
 
When this thinking can be applied to major rules so that students can see clearly how those rules support community values, the result is a positive peer culture. Avoiding drugs and alcohol starts to be about having a healthy environment where students can feel inspired to excel rather than dragged down by an unhealthy focus on drinking or using other illegal substances. Academic honesty starts to be about using assignments as tools for learning and it is about character rather than punishments or grade penalties. And so on.
 
Getting students to open up and talk honestly and to also listen is not easy. One of the practices that Bret and I will be talking about is called ‘circles'. Training faculty in how to facilitate small group discussions among students is a critical piece of bringing this change to a school. The more opportunities you can open for adults and students to talk, the more successful the program will be. Circles get students asking the right questions.  
 
Our community was in a place not long ago, where we were experiencing that sharp sense of conflict between students and adults. Students perceived the administration as unfair. They came to the erroneous conclusion that there were some adults that seemed to actually enjoy punishing them. We even had parents coming to the defense of their child instead of partnering with us to build healthy habits. If a parent feels that their kid is being singled out unfairly, or if they feel the consequences are simply too costly they tend to go on the offense. If that happens, the student learns that complaining to their parents is the way to solve conflict, which is not a great lesson. On the other hand, if parents see consequences that hold their student accountable, and teach their student and important life lesson without life-changing consequences they partner, and the adults are now able to really help the student learn. 
 
By implementing this new model, we’ve been able to shape a much more accepting student body. build trust between adults and kids so there is real dialogue, and a greater sense of working together. Students who have been here through the process will tell you it’s better now. They feel heard and respected. Of the students who have broken major school rules, every single one will tell you it’s the program approach has been life-changing. Most of them were students on the fringes of our campus community. Because of their experience restoring broken trust, they can now call themselves student leaders. We actually experience students seeking out faculty to share concerns if one of their peers is drinking or smoking marijuana. We are not yet the community we imagine, but we see such improvements that we know we are headed in the right direction.


What's the first step to implementing this program?

The first step must be persuading faculty that this is an important change. Some schools may need to invest more time into getting that buy-in. It wasn’t so hard at Brewster Academy because we were  already inclined toward avoiding rigidity in rules.  We just shared the research and facilitated faculty discussions. We started by changing our responses to small infractions, and teaching our community that all broken rules are reaching moments.  We established a team of faculty who have taken on the task of setting annual goals for growing our efforts so this is now completely faculty- driven.