Retribution can be gratifying. That sense of balance we crave in our lives is somehow restored when wrongdoers are compelled to pay for their wrongs.
Naturally, teachers also want to give mischief-makers and rule-breakers what they’ve got coming. How can a person maintain order in the classroom without penalties for misbehavior?
Unfortunately, a retributive view of discipline leads teachers to respond in ways that compound the problem of resistance in students. Harshness, humiliation, and biting sarcasm give rise to resentment or embarrassment, prompting students either to fight back or to withdraw from learning activities. Is there a better way to address wrongdoing in young people?
A heart-centered approach to classroom discipline holds students accountable for their behavior while also encouraging right behavior. This approach adheres to the biblical theme of grace. Let’s explore this theme and the way it relates to classroom discipline.
The price for our wrongdoing has already been paid. Christ’s sacrificial death on the cross has cancelled the penalty that was owed for sin. The punishment we deserve is paid in full! Contrary to what we may be inclined to believe, however, this wonderful reality does not cancel the need for discipline. Instead, it changes the focus of discipline. Responding to misbehavior is no longer about making others pay; it’s about helping young people to avoid the outcomes of a wrongful path.
Allow me to explain. Children who control others through bullying not only make life miserable for their victims; they acquire habits that may prevent them from forming meaningful, loving relationships. In addition, students who habitually make negative comments in class not only stifle curiosity and risk-taking in their classmates; they fail to benefit from the good that others have to offer. Furthermore, those who show disregard for authority not only turn their teachers into crabs; they miss out on the guidance that they could gain from adults. To sum it up, children who attempt to meet their needs in self-centered ways often wind up hurting themselves, in addition to others.
How does this perspective change discipline? Because the debt for our wrongs has been cancelled, discipline isn’t about giving children what they deserve; it’s about providing what students need.
What do misbehaving students really need? First, erring students need teachers who understand that behavior is driven by various motives, so they need teachers who consider what lies beneath the surface when they respond to misbehavior. Second, wayward children need to see the effects of their behavior upon themselves and others, and they need to accept responsibility for that behavior. Finally, because people who feel attacked or humiliated are less likely to accept responsibility for what they have done, misbehaving children need to be treated with respect.
Where is the accountability in discipline that is guided by grace? I want to clear up a common misunderstanding about grace. Adults often presume that, in order to show grace, they must withhold discipline. “I’ll give you grace this time, but next time...”. But grace does not leave misbehaving children stuck in their wrongful ways. Instead, grace is a gift that can provide what young people need in order to help them escape the path of wrong and learn to love the good.
In situations where the standard consequence for a particular misbehavior would alienate children or foster resentment and more wrongful behavior, teachers may choose to talk with wrongdoers in lieu of a penalty—or provide an alternative consequence. Such responses are sometimes the best way to redirect students back to the right path.
In other situations, children may need an imposed consequence in order to understand that their teachers are serious and that their behavior cannot be tolerated. If consequences are given in ways that help young people to see their wrong for what it is—and if they foster a desire to turn from that wrong—those consequences also are a form of grace.
How can grace and discipline function together? A recent discipline situation that I addressed at school may help to illustrate the blending of grace and discipline.
One of our larger sixth graders (I'll call him Patrick) was pulling a smaller classmate under his arm through the hallway. I knew that Patrick meant no harm because I could see that his "victim" was laughing. However, his stunt was clearly outside our rules for hallway behavior, so I gave him our standard penalty for horseplay, "community service."
The consequence was relatively light: he was required to spend five minutes cleaning in the lunchroom after he finished eating the next day. Another teacher supervised the penalty because I was scheduled to attend a meeting. When I returned to school, the teacher told me that Patrick did the work, but he also complained that he had done nothing wrong and that his consequence was unfair. So, I initiated a conversation with Patrick the next time I saw him. Our talk went something like this:
"Patrick, I heard that you were upset about having to clean up in the lunchroom yesterday."
"Yeah. I didn't do anything wrong."
"I saw you pulling your friend through the hallway under your arm. That's horseplay."
"Well, other people do it to me!"
"Who has done that to you lately?
"I don't know. Lots of people."
"Where does this happen?"
"In the classroom."
"Does it happen in my classroom?"
"I would like to know who is doing this to you if you can tell me."
"I can't think of anybody right now, but other people do it, too."
"You're probably right, and that's why we watch students between classes: we want to know if anyone is behaving this way."
"But what's the big deal? I wasn't hurting him."
"I know. Students at your age sometimes like to show friendship through roughhousing. But there are others who could get hurt by it, so we can't allow it inside."
(Long pause). "Okay."
"Do you think I was being fair when I assigned the consequence?"
"Yeah, I guess."
"Okay, thanks. You may go back to class now."
Both the consequence and the follow-up conversation endeavored to provide Patrick with the "needs" of misbehaving students. Because the motive of his behavior was to show friendship, for example, my response was different from the way I might respond to a bullying incident. In addition, the respectful dialogue softened Patrick's defenses, so that he could consider my point of view in addition to his own. Finally, the penalty was my way of holding Patrick responsible for his behavior, but my conversation helped him to accept responsibility for his behavior.
Discipline strategies that promote grace are most effective within the context of a heart-centered classroom climate. If you are interested in discovering practical ways to build a heart-centered climate, you may find my recent book, Beyond Control: Heart-Centered Classroom Climate and Discipline, to be a useful guide.