I know it may not always seem that way, but I try very hard not to offer opinions on subjects I know little about.
My posts about Gifted & Talented, Accelerated High Schools, age cut-offs, the SHSAT, and diverse schools come from a combination of research, personal experience, and the varied experiences of the families I work with.
When I was asked to weigh in on the consequences of the Trump Administration’s repeal of the Obama-era student discipline guidelines, I freely admitted that I did not feel I knew enough about the subject to offer an opinion.
However, I did know Alex Ignatovsky, Founder of Discovery Charter School 2 in San Jose, CA, whose guiding philosophy (and passion) is Positive Discipline.
And so it was Alex who I went to for answers.
NYST: What do you think the consequences will be if Obama-era federal guidelines regarding racial disparities in school discipline policies are repealed?
AT: The effect will be devastating. Children of color will once again be singled out for punishment at much higher rates.
When I was a Juvenile Probation Officer in Santa Cruz, I would tell African-American kids who found themselves in my office that, as revolting as it is to say and although I wish I didn’t have to say it, the truth of the matter is they need to be conscious of the fact that they are more visible to law enforcement officers simply because of their color. Their shocked faces were in sad contrast to their parents’ nods of understanding.
The school I helped found, Discovery Charter, has deeply-held values of inclusion. One of our primary tenets is to work with kids, their families, and support professionals to mitigate behavioral issues.
That said, our system is far from perfect. I have seen white kids expelled for behavior and actions that kids of color have been given a pass on. It’s also a question of economic status. I realize my point of view is tainted by the prevailing attitudes, wealth, and privilege rampant in the Blue Bubble that is Silicon Valley. I have personally heard kids of color, active bullies who, time and again, committed expellable, sometimes violent offenses, brag, “my lawyer got me off. So you better watch out!”
Certainly, there must have been mitigating factors. Nonetheless, it was demoralizing for the students who had to deal daily with this individual. Many felt betrayed by the adults who were supposed to be keeping their hearts and bodies safe.
NYST: Your school practices Positive Discipline (PD). What is it, and why do you think it should be used at home and at school?
AI: Have you ever been encouraged to do better after first being made to feel bad? We forget what it feels like for a child to, quite literally, “be talked down to.” The words they hear most are: No… don’t… that’s dangerous… get up… get down.
Sometimes we say these words kindly. Sometimes out of concern, frustration, or fear, we say them in raised, angry voices. We, as parents and teachers, just want to keep them safe, but, too often, what we teach them is that it’s a scary, dangerous world. We constantly remind our kids to listen, but we often have trouble with that ourselves.
At its heart, Positive Discipline encourages us to “connect before you correct,” and to be “kind and firm.” Acknowledging a child’s feelings before diving in with correction is a win/win. You capture their attention, and they may be more receptive to what you have to say after being acknowledged.
“No!” becomes “No, thank you!”
“That’s dangerous” becomes “You look like you’re having so much fun, but I’m concerned when I see you standing on the roof of the play structure.”
The unexpectedness of hearing an acknowledgment that something dangerous might be fun, or that they are actually being thanked for stopping, will freeze most kids in their tracks. Notice that they’re not being asked to please stop, which leaves the decision up to them, but told what’s expected and thanked in advance for doing it.
PD is really, really hard to do with your own kids. Most parents and teachers find it much easier to be kind than firm. The goal is to foster intrinsic motivation, so kids learn to self-regulate and grow into responsible, well-balanced, kind, gentle adults. Kindness without firmness leads to dependent, entitled whiny-butts!
I’ve heard Jane Nelson, the founder of Positive Discipline, say that it will always be a second language to us, but, hopefully, it’ll be our kid’s mother tongue. She also tells a hilarious and oddly encouraging story of the time she “flipped her lid” and chased her daughter around the house with a belt.
It’s so much easier to practice PD with other people’s children You might have noticed how well your kids can push your buttons, yes? When I “lose it,” I find myself saying the same words, in the same horrible tone, that I heard from my parents. Unlike my parents, I put myself in a time out. Kids are incredibly forgiving. When I come back, sincerely apologize, and explain how and why I lost it, forgiveness is, almost always, immediate. Moreover, it leads seamlessly into a calm and frank discussion. I often joke that if PD is done correctly, if you’ve talked and listened enough, then at some point you’ll find yourself having this conversation:
You: When I see you doing that, it concerns me, let’s talk…
Kids: [interrupting] No, no! No need! We get it. Thank you!
That’s the goal. My kids are 13 and 10. I’ve been practicing PD for ten years. We’re not quite there yet. But I know we’re on our way.