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Positive Classroom Management Series

Positive Classroom Discipline

Chapter 16 - Back-Up Responses Beyond the Classroom (page 2)

Reducing Abuse of the Office

A Response-Cost Program for Bouncers In Chapter 13 a response-cost program for reducing abuse of the office was briefly mentioned. To review, a response-cost program requires the construction of a due process for dealing with a problem that is costly enough to induce someone to take care of the problem in order to avoid the due process. Response-cost programs are ideal for suppressing irresponsible behavior in a situation in which direct suppression via negative sanctions is awkward or inappropriate.


The repeated bouncing of students to the office for minor offenses is a classic management dilemma calling for response-cost management. If an administrator said, "Don't send them to the office," he or she would generate intense faculty resentment for lack of support. If they bend to the unreasonable demands of the bouncers, however, administrators commit a reinforcement error by acceding to their demands while removing any reason for the bouncer to learn better methods of coping.


A response-cost program to eliminate bouncing, however, will not be a live option for an administrator until the majority of the faculty (at least two-thirds) have been thoroughly trained in effective methods of classroom management so that they understand and support the administrator's goals and strategy. Thus, the following program is usually not instituted until the second or third year of involvement with a school site.


As mentioned earlier (Chapter 13), the administrator approaches response-cost for bouncers from the perspective of doing a more thorough and conscientious job of dealing with problems severe enough to warrant an office referral. Far from being a ruse, this commitment to dealing thoroughly with tough management problems is not only appropriate but long overdue at most school sites. Most administrators shy away from such a large commitment to adequate follow through because they do not have time for it. Being able to afford the due process of the response-cost program, therefore, is a luxury that only appears as affordable after most of the faculty have stopped making office referrals and are standing squarely behind the new policy.


The new policy is simple:


  • If a discipline problem is too big to handle within the classroom, it is serious enough to warrant a systematic plan to solve the problem developed by the teacher in conjunction with key administrators.

  • When a student is referred to the office, the teacher must fill out an incident report (one full page) and describe those management methods that were used before the office referral. (A check-list can be provided on a separate page with room for explanation.) The incident report must accompany the student to the office so that administrators may know in adequate detail what has happened.

  • A planning conference of at least a half hour must be held with the referring teacher and key administrators after school on the same day to plan a future course of action in dealing with the problem. This plan should focus on prevention as well as remediation.


For the bouncers, the days of the quick, cheap, short-term solving of classroom management dilemmas by simply issuing a pink slip are over. They will either have to handle it themselves within the classroom or become involved in a careful, systematic, and therefore relatively costly problem-solving process.


Most bouncers will experience anxiety and will often express anger. If, after all, they had adequate classroom management skills, they wouldn't be bouncing. They are frequently burned out and want to leave school as soon as possible. They see the incident report and the planning meeting as a burden. So, what are they to do? First they may try to gather support in opposition to the new policy: "We get no support. That's their job, isn't it?"


A naive, untrained faculty may well rally around the complainers, the negative leaders of the faculty. But a trained faculty will stand firmly behind the new policy. The bouncers must now cope within their classrooms or spend a lot of time picking up the pieces after school. At this point many of the teachers who had been negative toward classroom management training finally see the light and volunteer to learn new skills. Indeed, the upgraded due process for handling office referrals is the final mechanism whereby burned-out teachers are provided incentives for actively participating in professional growth.


Keep Adequate Records Although the careful problem solving of the new due process confronts the bouncers most directly with a new set of responsibilities, in fact, almost all school sites need to do a more thorough job of keeping track of serious behavior violations. In all but a relatively few secondary sites, no permanent records are kept of severe or recurrent behavior problems. This sloppy record keeping can cost a teacher or a school district dearly if a chronic troublemaker finally gets into serious trouble with the law (violence, vandalism, drugs, etc.). The parent can deny either any prior record of serious misconduct or any attempt by school authorities to help the child. With no record of serious incidents and attempts at management, the educators in the room look like a bunch of dummies.


Although an incident report should always be filed for major "altercations," any secondary teacher should keep a log which records in simple terms the student's work habits and noteworthy behaviors. A piece of notebook paper with three headings is sufficient: (1) date, (2) work, and (3) behavior. The work column can simply record assignments turned in and not turned in although the log sometimes replaces the grade book with notations for quality of work and extra-credit work. The entries in the behavior column should be brief but can be exceedingly revealing, for example:


9/15 Hits, gets surly, takes seat.


9/17 Nasty back talk-call parent and leave message.


9/18 Parent doesn't return call. Call again. They blame me. Set up conference for 9-22.


9/22 Parent doesn't show.


9/23 Call parent. He is surly ("Get off our kid's back.") Conference reset for 9-30.


9/25 Uses profanity in class.


9/30 Parent doesn't show.


Getting Out of the Office At those school sites in which the demand by teachers for help from the office finally reaches a low level, options open up to the vice principals and counselors that were not possible before. They not only have time to devote to students who really need special help with their lives, but they can also deal with discipline referrals in a completely different way. When the number of daily discipline referrals to an administrator becomes moderate, it becomes more cost-effective for the administrator to leave the office and go to the student rather than having the student come to the office.


The advantages that accrue to going to the student's classroom quickly become apparent when the administrator sees the gratitude on the face of teachers as they come to the door. The administrator is obviously going out of his way to help. Students are more impressed by a vice principal at the door than they are by a pink slip. The teacher also remains more credible as a discipline manager to the students since, at least to a degree, the problem is still being handled within the classroom. And the opportunity for goofing off on the way to the office and in the office while waiting to be seen has been eliminated. Finally, there is much less wasted time not only for the students but for the administrator as well. An administrator can often have four or five quick conferences with students outside their classrooms in a single period while monitoring the halls and school grounds in the process. In addition, the continual presence of administrators in the halls can suppress a lot of out-of-classroom problems. Simple mobility or MBWA (Management By Walking Around) has proved to be one of the most effective ways for executives in both industry and education to stay on top of things.


The Office at the Elementary School

All problems of relegating discipline management to the office at the secondary level apply to the elementary level as well. Abuse takes roughly the same form for roughly the same reasons.


Yet the problem of bouncing seems to be less extreme at the elementary level. Owing to the structure of the self-contained classroom, elementary teachers face a different set of contingencies for bouncing. First, in self-contained classrooms all students are well known. It is naturally easier for a secondary teacher to bounce a relatively anonymous student who is with them only one period a day and in no way distinguishes him or herself apart from getting into trouble. Second, in a self-contained classroom there is no such thing as bouncing a kid and not having to see him or her for the rest of the day. These kids always come back to you wearing whatever chip on their shoulder you helped put there. and you must live with the consequences of your own discipline practices for the rest of that day. And, finally, elementary teachers quite naturally tend to see their students as children rather than as young adults. Consequently, elementary teaching is more strongly infused with the parent role. When students are sent to the office at the elementary level, it is more often because they have done something terrible for which sitting in the presence of the "supreme authority," the principal, seems to be the only sufficiently awesome thing to do.


One dilemma at the elementary level that is unique to small school sites with only one administrator, however, is that the principal is not there half the time! She is at a meeting at the district office or with some planning committee or parent group. If I had to rely for back-up on someone who was not there half the time, I would look for good alternatives.


Why Use the Office At the elementary level one more often thinks of taking students to the office rather than sending them to the office. A teacher at any grade level typically takes the student to the office not only to make sure he or she gets there but also to confer with the principal about a plan of action. One might, on the other hand, imagine a bouncer sending a student to the office to get the problem out of his or her hair and to make someone else responsible for dealing with it. This contrast between taking versus sending a student to the office shows the difference between responsible and irresponsible use of the office in dealing with a discipline problem.


Irresponsible use of the office, whether at the elementary or secondary levels, signals an abdication of management, an attempt to give the problem to someone else rather than to seek the other person's collaboration in a joint effort at problem solving. Implicit within an understanding of the responsible use of the office in problem solving lies a criterion for when to use the office: There is no reason to bring a problem to the office unless it requires the professional judgment of at least one additional colleague (the principal, for example) in order to figure out what to do next.


Smooth Moves

Collaboration with the Principal A teacher who is effective in managing classroom discipline typically needs to come to the office only with something that was sudden and unforeseen-usually injury or fighting. After the teacher explains the incident to the principal, he or she will often stand there expectantly waiting for a remedy to be instantly coughed up. The teacher apparently does not know what is going through the principal's mind at this moment. To clarify, the principal is thinking, "What the hell do you expect me to do about it?"


The choreography in this situation is for the principal to take two relaxing breaths, stand slowly, look the student in the eye, take two more relaxing breaths, and say


Billy, I want you to sit in this chair and look at the wall. We will return in a minute. And when I walk through that door, I will expect to find you looking at the wall! Do you under stand?


Then the principal and teacher leave together. They close the door behind them and keep walking. When teacher and principal are out of earshot of the student, the principal turns to teacher and says, "What the hell do you think we ought to do about this?" If you are not sure what to do next, at least have the sense not to debate it in front of the kid. If solving the problem does not require the combined judgment of two professionals, the teacher has no business in the office.


Phone Calls Question: If you decide to call the parent, who explains what happened over the phone? Answer: The kid.


The principal rings the parent and explains the situation before turning the phone over to the student to fill in the details as the principal and teacher look on. Once the student commits himself to a story over the phone with the latitude to lie removed by the presence of the principal and teacher, he can't lie and alibi so easily after he gets home. Many a fruitful collaboration with a parent has been aborted at the beginning by the child going straight home and lying in order to get a somewhat blind or gullible parent to side with him or her against an "unfair teacher.


Transition to Extra-Large Back-up Responses

The issue of sending or taking a student to the office brings into focus a watershed event in the teacher's management of a discipline problem within his or her classroom-seeking the direct aid of someone else (a school administrator) in solving the problem. Upon this event hang three issues:


  • The size of the problem

  • The teacher's competence in classroom management

  • The teacher's taking responsibility for classroom management


Once the administrator accepts responsibility for fixing the problem by dealing directly with the student, all three issues have been resolved for all practical purposes. The administrator has implicitly acknowledged that (1) the problem is sufficiently large. (2) the teacher knows what to do before coming to the office, and (3) the teacher has done all that he or she can. If any of these implications is not accurate, the administrator is responding to the wrong issue.


Consequently, before going further up the back-up system, we will insert an additional step:Reexamine! The teacher and administrator should reexamine the whole situation together to reassess the nature and source of the problem. A sudden or violent situation can force the teacher and the administrator beyond large back-up responses on rare occasions. But if a situation is at all repetitive, the mere repetitiveness of the problem should serve as a red flag to all involved. Most students who repetitively get to the office or beyond do so as a result of mismanagement.



The treatment of extra-large back-up responses will be brief. We are now well beyond the confines of the classroom and beyond the normal applications of positive classroom discipline. The topic of extra-large back-up systems is potentially immense: it covers the management of delinquent populations and the involvement of education, both regular and special, with the juvenile justice system and the families of court-referred youths.


For our purposes it will be most useful to restrict our focus to those management procedures which are commonly known and in use at many school sites. These procedures might well be considered by a faculty and administration as they go about constructing or reconstructing their school discipline policy.


Common Procedures

In-School Suspension In-school suspension is a variation on time out which has received much attention in the past few years, especially at the secondary level. In-school suspension is time out for an extended period, usually a half day or full day, in a private study area with a folder of assigned work and academic supervision.


For the extremely or chronically provocative student, in-school suspension offers an alternative to suspension from school which keeps the student in a learning environment. The negative sanction is social isolation. The message quite clearly is: You are going to attend school. You can study one of two ways - either with your friends or by yourself. The choice is yours. When applied conscientiously, in-school suspension can be extremely effective.


The primary liability of in-school suspension is cost. The first two prerequisites of operating such a program are (1) a private room, and (2) someone qualified to supervise the room and offer academic assistance at least once every 15 minutes. The first two problems typically encountered by a staff considering the use of in-school suspension, of course, are a lack of space and supervisory personnel.


If adequate space and supervision are provided, the cost of operating the system for a year can be high indeed since it preempts the use of a much-needed room and adds at least part of a salary to the payroll. If adequate facilities and supervision are not provided, the school not only risks a lawsuit with strong legal precedents supporting the student's "right to treatment," but the school also risks doing a botch job, which will make the problem worse. The following conversation with a junior high school principal provided a timeless example of how not to do in-school suspension for cheap.


Principal: Hello, Dr. Jones. I'm glad you could come out here today to speak. Of course, we don't have any serious discipline problems at this school site. We have been using a discipline management program here for quite some time.


Me: Oh, really? What kinds of programs do you use?


Principal: Well, in-school suspension mainly.


Me: Oh, where do you hold it?


Principal: Well, there's this room down by the lunch area that used to be for storage.


Me: How big is it?


Principal: Oh, about 14 x 20.


Me: Who do you get to supervise it?


Principal: Are you kidding? We're short one secretary and three teachers today. I'm going to have to cover two periods. Besides, even at best, there's nothing in the budget to provide for supervision.


Me: How many kids are typically down there?


Principal: Oh, it depends. Maybe five or six, sometimes up to eight or nine.


By doing a half-baked job of in-school suspension, the school had in fact designed an incentive system to set up five or six or sometimes eight or nine first-hours teachers to be faced with an intolerable discipline problem. The reinforcement error offered for outrageous behavior was the opportunity to be bounced to in-school suspension. Any junior high student who not only hates school but is also capable of being thoroughly obnoxious who cannot make it down to the in-school suspension room by 9:00 a.m. to join the gang is definitely off his form. Indeed, that is exactly how I found the system to be working when I later consulted to the school.


Saturday School Saturday school as a means of dealing with cuts and tardies can not only prove effective in suppressing poor attendance, but it can often recoup a large portion of its cost by generating the state aid for attendance that was previously lost by cuts. Administrative costs are high, however, and the concept must have parental support. Thus, any school considering in investment in Saturday school should also consider an investment in teacher training as well as a more sophisticated school-site management system for preventing cuts and tardies in the first place.


Suspension Suspension is fairly well understood by educators. Rarely is it seen as fixing anything permanently. More often it is simply regarded as the only thing left. Administrators generally appreciate as well the frequency with which the intent of suspension as a negative sanction is totally undermined by rewards available outside school. These rewards range from watching TV at home to hanging out at the local computer game palace to dealing a few hundred dollars worth of drugs on the street.


With suspension, as with most extra-large back-up responses, frequent experience with them reduces their effectiveness. They probably carry far more weight as a possibility for a fairly good kid than as a common reality for a chronic troublemaker.


Suspension depends heavily upon parental support and follow through consistent with the intent of the school. If, for example, caring parents express their concern to the child in an intelligent fashion and carefully monitor the child's doing schoolwork at home with no play until the normal school dismissal time, then suspension has a chance. It succeeds, however, more as a vehicle for communicating a need for involvement to parents than as a one-shot Cure in its own right. To the extent that the parents do not cooperate, the method is crippled.


More Extreme Procedures

Delivering a Student to a Parent at Work Dad or Mom may well become more involved in supporting management effort when their little darling is delivered to them at the office or construction site at 10:00 a.m. with the accompanying message:


"Harold has done X, Y, and Z for the nth time today. For him to be readmitted into the public (private) educational system, we require that you bring Harold to school personally and stay for a conference on - day."


The need for such a radical cure may not be within the experience of most regular classroom teachers and may therefore sound extreme or bizarre. But it is not at all farfetched for those who deal with delinquent students, court-referred students, juvenile hall school students, or severely emotionally and behaviorally handicapped students. The objective of the intervention is parental involvement in an effort to help the child. The first response of the parents will probably be one of rage, and you have to be willing to take the heat.


Accompanying the Student to School A sanction which ranks on a par with the preceding one for involving the parents of an incorrigible student, usually against their wills, involves the school's requiring that, as a condition for readmitting the student to school, the parent(s) must accompany the child throughout the school day, including sitting next to her at all times and riding next to her on the bus. The message conveyed by the school is that, since their child cannot or will not govern her own behavior at school. she will need adult supervision. Since the school has no staff for such purposes, the supervision will have to be supplied by the parents.


Naturally the student hates it, and the parent isn't too fond of it either. But as a last resort it can work.


Call the Police Calling the police typically involves felony or assault although it may be used for theft or drugs. We are fast running out of options.


Expulsion In a sense the issue of expulsion is the issue underlying all the more extreme back-up procedures. The question raised by their use is: Are we going to pull out all the stops to keep this student in public education, or are we going to call it off?


Administrative Commitment to "Hang Tough"

Extra-large back-up responses should be extremely rare and usually represent an attempt by school personnel to get sonic kind of responsible action from the parents of an incorrigible student. Often such a student would be in a special education class, but not often enough. Parents of such students sometimes covertly support the deviant behavior and usually say to the school, that's your problem, not mine."


Before attempting to use a more extreme back-up procedure, the school administration should make several key decisions:


  1. Are we going to take a united stand to keep this student in school? If a parent can eliminate the program with an angry call to the superintendent or a school board member, forget it.

  2. Are we willing to upset our schedules for a while to see this thing through to the end?

  3. Would we all feel better if the kid disappeared? Are we really going to see it through?


Obviously, commitment is the main ingredient. The education system is making its last stand to keep a student from washing out. Options available to teachers and administrators vary from state to state.


More extreme back-up options will provoke a mild to major family crisis as well as a confrontation with the school system in most cases, and such a confrontation can be quite stressful to everyone involved. Such a crisis, however, is sometimes the first painful step toward change. The cost is obviously high by this time, but the potential results may well justify the investment.



A back-up system is a carefully designed hierarchy of negative sanctions which is designed as part of a larger management system to be used as infrequently as possible and for as brief a period of time as possible. A back-up system exists to put the lid on a nasty situation and to buy time for the implementation of more sophisticated. incentive-oriented interventions.


A back-up system in using negative sanctions is relatively dangerous because negative sanctions when misused can be destructive. A back-up system when abused is ultimately most destructive to the alienated students - the big disrupters who have long since expended any store of sympathy they may have had with their elders. They are the ones who are locked by reinforcement errors into a pattern of behavior that is ultimately maladaptive and self-defeating. They ultimately lose out on their education.


A successful back-up system is designed and implemented from the bottom up as well as from the top down. The heart of an effective back-up system is in the teacher's initial responses to unacceptable behavior, which renders its recurrence increasingly unlikely. Effective discipline must, of course, be supported from the top down, and administrators must play their role. But administrators can impose effective discipline on a school site neither through a series of policies and directives nor by the adoption of a tough hierarchy of consequences. Such a hierarchy, though perhaps part of an effective back-up system, is too little and too late. By itself it will never self-eliminate and it will always tend to overload. Yet it will, in a perverse and empty way, tend to please everybody by creating the illusion that something "tough" has been attempted without requiring real change from anybody.


As we get into large and extra-large back-up responses, we get the sense that we are now only picking up the pieces rather than preventing problems. Indeed, an analysis of the function of administrators in responding to crisis in this chapter in conjunction with the section "Why Back-Up Systems Fail" (from Chapter 14 of Positive Classroom Discipline) will probably face principals and vice principals with a clear look at a no-win situation that is only too familiar. If these descriptions have destroyed the illusion that administrators could and should carry out a major back-up role for classroom management on an hour-by-hour basis, then we are all better off. As long as teachers expect the impossible from the office and as long as administrators attempt to supply it, nobody will be in the market for either a serious reevaluation of discipline management or a serious training program for teachers and administrators.




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