top of page

Positive Classroom Management Series

Positive Classroom Discipline

Chapter 16 - Back-Up Responses Beyond the Classroom

That portion of the back-up system that lies outside the classroom, the top half, consists of large and extra-large back-up responses. Large back-up responses are for the most part equivalent to sending a student to the office, whereas extra-large back-up responses include follow-up sanctions such as in-school suspension, suspension, and expulsion. Large and extra-large back-up responses when used properly involve the collaboration of a team of professionals to solve an extremely difficult problem. When used improperly, however, the top half of the system can represent nothing more than one person dumping a problem into someone else's lap. (For a brief overview of smaller back-up responses within the classroom, click here).



Large back-up responses require that the administration directly help a teacher in dealing with a management problem that began in the classroom. Whereas a wide variety of things might happen to students once they are sent to the office, a watershed step in management has irrevocably occurred. The teacher has passed the primary responsibility for solving the problem to someone else.


Large back-up responses involve an immediate and dramatic cost escalation insofar as any such response requires the time and attention of several professionals. This cost escalation may be entirely justified as the only sufficiently powerful way of responding to any ugly situation. However, the repeated use of the office for back-up by a teacher usually signals an unwillingness or inability to manage behavior within the classroom by any more effective means.


The Problem with the Office

The office is in deep trouble when students are "bounced" there for moderate-size offenses. When a student is bounced to the office, everybody loses. The teacher, in spite of any pheasant posturing or bravado, has made a public demonstration of his or her inability to deal successfully with the student within the classroom. In most cases the teacher has gotten upset, has felt stymied, and has finally had to pull rank to get back on top.


The student has, most likely, upset the teacher even if the teacher remains stone-faced. The student has thereby controlled the situation, since in body language calm is strength and upset is weakness. The student has probably also made a successful show of bravery and prowess relative to the teacher. And, in addition, the student has gotten revenge for any public humiliation that may have occurred during the preceding escalation. The student, therefore, is rewarded for provocative behavior within the first few seconds of the confrontation, a reinforcement error that cannot be undone by subsequent events in the office. The outrageous student has no doubt also been rewarded by the attention, laughs, and "oohs and ahs" of the peer group.

The office also loses because it has no effective cure for ineffective classroom management that can be reliably brought into play after a student has arrived with a pink slip. When several students are waiting to be seen, administrators can usually only afford to admonish the students and send them back to class - the old revolving door policy. Yet teachers keep complaining that the office doesn't help them while continuing to send kids to the vice principal as though he or she were an exorcist.


Consequently, although sending a nice kid to the office may occasionally produce repentance, in most cases sending students to the office produces a no-win management situation for teachers and administrators alike - one which is self-perpetuating rather than self-eliminating. Indeed sending a student to the office may have the dubious distinction of being the most overused and overrated discipline technique in education.


Since using the office for back-up can be an expensive and seductive trap, we will examine its use carefully. We will attempt to understand how and why it so predictably malfunctions as an agent of discipline enforcement. Since the magnitude of the failure of the office in eliminating behavior problems is most blatant at the secondary level, we will begin with a careful examination of the way in which the office at a large high school functions and malfunctions as part of the school-site back-up system.


The Office at High School

The typical large high school has, on the basis of my conversations with administrators, between 2500 and 5000 referrals to the office per year for discipline problems that occur within the classroom, including tardies. This astronomical total, which remains fairly constant from year to year, stands as a testimonial to a management method that does not self-eliminate.


Bouncing by "Office Junkies" The majority of referrals at a school site (omitting tardies) are made by a handful of teachers. The most competent teachers at a typical school site will not only rarely make a referral to the office but will also be totally unaware of the people who are making the referrals, the number of referrals being made, and the reasons for their occurrence. These referrals will consume the time of half the administrative staff of the school site-usually two people high on the salary schedule. The remaining administrators will often have forgotten about the nature and extent of the referral problem until some event forces the issue into their consciousness.


Sometimes the event that causes a principal, for example, to take a fresh look at office referrals is the illness of a colleague. As one principal confessed to me:


"I had forgotten what it was like to be a vice principal until I had to pinch-hit for Herman. I think I wanted to forget. I spent the whole day dealing with one referral after another and didn't get it damn thing done! And most of the referrals were bullshit! I couldn't believe it. So-and-so was late to class. So-and-so was chewing gum. So-and-so kept talking after I asked her to stop. So-and-so forgot his book again. And the referrals that really were big problems were in most cases made into big problems by the way the teacher dealt with the kid!"


Teachers, however, have a different point of view, and their point of view is often not heard until the entire school staff has suffered long and hard at the hands of a minority of the student body. At such times teachers, administrators, and even parents may be forced to take a new look at the way in which discipline is being managed at the school site. In times of great stress all parties involved may join to form a "discipline task force."


The Discipline Task Force I will tell a story of my involvement with a particular discipline task force at a large inner city high school that highlights the key problems of dealing with discipline in the office. You must realize, however, that for a high school task force on discipline to resort to calling in an outside consultant, they must be suffering. The task force is at loggerheads over how to deal with kids for at least a year, and everyone hates everyone.


The Teacher If you talk to the teachers about the problem, they say:


"We don't get any support! I have kids in my classroom who try to get away with murder, and they know that the worst that can happen to them is that I will send them down to the office. Do you know what happens then? In 10 minutes they're back! It's a big joke! And when I want some real help down at the office, they give me the message, "What's the matter, can't you handle the problems in your classroom?" or "Don't send your problems down here because we can't fix them any better than you can." The message over and over again is you're on your own kid. Lots of luck. Some of these students are a foot taller than I am-tough, street-wise, big-mouthed kids-and being on your own leaves you pretty damn vulnerable! Listen, I want some real help when I need it!"


The teacher's complaint seems all the more plausible when you know the statistics on teacher assaults and injury at such school sites to say nothing of burn-out. So I ask the administrators what it looks like from their angle.


The Administrator The administrators that I deal with in such situations are usually vice principals. Few principals in their right minds would place themselves on the discipline task force. A typical dialogue with a vice principal goes something like this.


VP: Do you see that bench outside my office?


Me: Yeah.


VP: You know what that's for?


Me: Yeah. That's where kids sit while they're waiting for you to see them.


VP: Right! Now, school opens up here at 8 o'clock in the morning. Do you know when the first kid is on that bench?


Me: Eight o'clock in the morning.


VP: No. 7:50! The kid got into a fight while waiting at the door. I talk to the kid for 20 or 30 minutes because he's one of my regulars. He's all bent out of shape about something. When I open the door to let him go to class, how many kids do you think are on the bench now?


Me: How many?


VP: It could be five or more, but on agood day let's say its only three. So I see the next kid, and when I open my door the next time there are five or sick kids on the bench for sure. At that point counseling is all over for the day. I mean, if I don't speed things up, we're all gonna die! The kids will be shoving each other off the bench and making noise and hassling the secretary. The last two secretaries we had quit within 6 weeks. Then somebody's mother walks in, and some kid calls her a choice name. She goes to the principal, and then we have an irate parent to deal with. I mean, if I let those kids stack up out there in the office, it will turn into a zoo! So, what do I do? Get 'em in, and get 'em out. Hell, I know it's not helping very much, but it's better than instant chaos! What are my choices?


Since chaos is clearly intolerable, most VPs and counselors settle for survival. Yet, the revolving-door policy, perhaps unavoidable under the circumstances, is neither good counseling nor good discipline. The counseling is so superficial, in fact, that it amounts to a parody on counseling-and most VPs and counselors are well enough trained to know it. But when the students begin to stack up outside, what indeed are the choices?


And after the lecture on good citizenship is over, does Bill walk back to class muttering "mea culpa" to himself? Are you kidding? As he swaggers into the teacher's class, someone whispers, "How was it?" and Bill says "Shiiit!" as he puts his feet up on the table. And now what is the teacher going to do? And what is she going to do tomorrow when the same problem recurs?


The Parent Once I've gotten the administrator's perspective, I ask to talk to the parents. The parents say:


"My child was doing just fine until I sent him up to that school, and now they tell me he's having problems. I think it's the school's fault. He was a perfectly wonderful child before he went up there. He tells me the classes are boring!"


The kid may have a dossier 5 inches thick that goes back to kindergarten, but who's counting. Satisfied parents don't volunteer for a discipline task force.


Proper and Improper Use of the Office I have one piece of advice to give to teachers about using the office to solve their classroom discipline problems: don't.


The reason I say don't is not because I think that teachers shouldn't send students to the office. That is not the point. I don't deal with "shoulds" or "shouldn'ts." I deal with the lessons of the school of hard knocks. The reason a teacher is better off not relying on the office is because the office is inherently unreliable.'


The office is unreliable not because people in the office do not want to help teachers. That attribution by teachers, no matter how true to their experience it may be, misses the reason the office continually lets them down. The office is inherently unreliable because its capacity to help was never that great to begin with. As soon as there are three students on the bench outside the vice principal's office, counseling is done for the day, and the revolving-door policy begins. The office can help teachers with discipline management. The problem is that the office cannot help them very often. As soon as the demand for service exceeds the supply, the entire system jams and become useless! At a typical high school the office becomes jammed by 9:30 a.m. What happens for the rest of the day is simply a matter of survival.


And how many bouncers or office junkies do you think it takes oil a faculty to keep the office permanently jammed? Any faculty of sixty to eighty teachers will have (it least a half-dozen bouncers, and that is more than enough. Owing to their ineptitude or irresponsibility in classroom management, they will jam their colleague's access to the office for back-up all year long. The bouncers' more competent colleagues will not understand why the office can never serve them. They typically have no idea of the chronicity of bouncing among a minority of their colleagues, much less who the bouncers are. All they know is that when they need help it's not there - just as their bouncer colleagues keep saying in the teacher's lounge. Such topics are not well understood much less candidly discussed at most school sites.


In short, the notion that teachers as a group can send students to the office as a common means of fixing classroom discipline problems is one of the most long-standing myths in education. In spite of the daily evidence delivered in overwhelming quantities that the practice does not work, nearly every one - teachers and administrators and parents alike-seem unalterably convinced that it should work.


Reinforcement Errors That Feed the Problem

The Teacher For the bouncer, sending an obnoxious kid to the office is instant relief. Never mind that they will be back tomorrow, at least they are gone today. Immediate relief rewards the act of bouncing, and the long-term consequence-the repetitiveness of the problem-is most logically misattributed to the students. They keep disrupting because it is their nature. They are "rotten kids."


The Principal If the administration were to attempt to stem the flow of referrals by closing the door and refusing to receive students, they would be met by a blistering accusation of nonsupport, especially from the bouncers. If the office does its best to respond to the constant stream of referrals, even if it is just with the revolving door, at least they are trying. When you don't know what else to do, doing your best is certainly more rewarding than being hung in effigy.


The Counselor Most VPs and counselors at most high schools have little time to use their higher level job skills that qualified them to be a counselor in the first place. If they do have the luxury of adequate time to do some real counseling, however, they must beware of committing a reinforcement error in the process.


What is the incentive for lonely and troubled students to work hard and act appropriately in class when an exhibition of inappropriate behavior gets them some counseling? Since the luxury of real counseling is in short supply in regular education settings, the extent of such a reinforcement error is correspondingly limited. But it can be rampant in special education settings where there are more counselors and fewer students. In many cases the availability of one-to-one TLC (tender loving care) is the primary reinforcer for periodic outbursts in the classroom, especially during difficult subjects. By delivering counseling as a reward for having a severe problem, the hapless counselor can collect a clientele of chronics, just like the nurse.


For counseling of a severe behavior problem to produce the intended result, the time and place must be chosen carefully. In training educators to deliver counseling in conjunction with a back-up response, there is a rule of thumb that spells out when it is OK to talk with a student about his or her problem. The rule is: First you pay. Then we talk.


Until students have experienced the appropriate consequences for their actions, a heart-to-heart talk is impossible. Before the delivery of the negative sanction, a student's vested interest is typically to wheedle his or her way out of the consequence that she or he has earned by some form of blaming and excuse making: not by joining the teacher in clarifying values, feelings, and motivations.


The Student The rewards available for a student's getting the teacher's goat have already been described. They are entertainment, control, and revenge. Additional reinforcement errors can occur as TLC is delivered in the counselor's office as we have just discussed. As a result of being outrageous, a student can talk to someone who listens, rather than having to learn algebra.


The cycle is therefore complete - everyone is inappropriately rewarded to some degree for using the office to solve discipline problems-everyone, that is, except the poor, haplesscompetent teacher who only needs the office once or twice a semester and cannot understand why it is not there when he or she needs it. Were the faculty to attack the administration for nonsupport, the best teachers would join the bouncers based on their disappointing experience with the office.



bottom of page