As we concluded last week, by the time students get to the middle school, junior high, and senior high years, issues not dealt with in elementary school have grown larger. This is a good time to remember the virtues of creating an environment conducive to good discipline while the child is as young as possible.
When we discuss discipline with these older ages, I will refer to them as “students” more often and as “children” less often. Yes, a 6th grader is still a child in many ways, as is a 17-year-old. But I want our focus for these ages to be on treating them as adults and having realistic expectations and responsibilities for them.
As it’s been said, “If you want children to keep their feet on the ground, put some responsibility on their shoulders.” This is especially true for older students, about whom I’ve discovered that the more I treat them like adults, the more adult-like they begin to act.
So let’s talk about some positive ways we can discipline these students before major issues arise. Then next week we will address more volatile and serious situations.
THE JUNIOR HIGH STUDENT
Remember, discipline is not about punishing behavior after it has occurred but ought to be about creating an environment that encourages positive behavior. So how do we create a climate conducive to effective discipline with the junior high student?
- Middle school and junior high students are in the dialectic stage of development, meaning that they are disputatious – they like to debate, dialogue, and dispute everything! Provide opportunities for them to debate appropriately, with respect for others’ opinions as well as the adult. Also, as a teacher or a parent, do not be overly sensitive to disagreements with them at this stage. As I’ve written before, adolescents have a different interpretation of debates than adults do, especially parents. They need to discuss issues with you, so don’t dismiss them as disrespectful or naive. Take time to listen to them and teach them how to think things through in a respectful manner.
- These “children” are in the awkwardness of adolescence. They are fearful, alienated, and unsure. They need to know that you CARE about them personally. Make sure they hear you say words of encouragement to them, even if they act embarrassed by it. This is often more difficult for the parent than the teacher, but the important thing to remember is that they still need your support. Maybe you don’t write cute notes in their lunch boxes anymore (as my kids were sure to tell me by this age!), but don’t take things so personally that you cease lifting them up regularly with your words and actions. For the teacher, you will find that a positive classroom leads to more positive behavior.
- With that in mind, show no tolerance for teasing. Teasing leads to cliques and bullying. Also, refrain from sarcasm. I know some teachers and parents use it as a way to relate to this age, but these students also have major insecurities and often misunderstand your sarcasm and end up taking it as a sign that it is okay to tease others. The junior high student does not need yet another reason to become cynical, so try and avoid modeling it for them.
- For the teacher, structure times and ways to get to know your students and for them to get to know you. You can do this with writing activities, get-to-know-you warm ups at the beginning of class, or extra-curricular events. At home, you might think you know your child perfectly, but during this age they are developing new aspects of their personality. Pay attention to this and show them that you’ve noticed. You don’t have to hover around them constantly (which they do not want!) in order to observe these small but significant changes. A simple remark from you in a positive manner can greatly encourage them that they are headed in the right direction.
- Structure times and ways for students to become acquainted with each other’s strengths and weaknesses, personal joys, and struggles. It helps to know you aren’t alone in dealing with the ups and downs of adolescence. At home it might help them to hear you tell stories about your own struggles. NOT your stories of walking 20 miles in the snow when your life was SO much harder than theirs, but anecdotes they can relate to
- Demystify the learning process so they begin to understand that everyone is good at something. I have written numerous books and articles on this topic and speak on it regularly. At Grace Academy we give each child a personality and learning style assessment that we use in order to help the student learn in their best language whenever possible. In the past I have also taught study skills to the 6th graders, where I walk them through their profiles and help them find practical tips for doing homework, studying for a test, and relating to a teacher they just “don’t get.” Each year the transformation is amazing, as these students emerge more confident and better-prepared for junior high and high school.
- Praise students for their strengths in front of others. Do it regularly, and let everyone hear you say it!
UNDERSTANDING THE HIGH SCHOOL STUDENT
What can we do to cultivate a climate that is conducive to effective discipline with the high school student?
High school students have similarities to junior high students, but with a greater capacity for handling responsibility. Ideally, these students are now in the rhetoric stage. This means that they can define, articulate, and defend what they think and believe. So give them a chance to do this! Lecturing at them is not the best way to help them think through the life-decisions they are beginning to make. Conversation is what they seek, so give them your ear, your time, and a chance to express themselves.
Your attitude toward them makes a hug difference. If you treat them more like adults, they are more likely to act like adults. Find ways at school or home to give them new responsibilities that show them you trust them. Let them earn freedom and privileges as they display their responsibility and trustworthiness.
Get to know them personally. This will, of course, look differently at home than school. But the point is that you take an active interest in their development into adulthood. If you show them that you are interested in the direction their life is headed, it will encourage them to continue on that path.
Next week we will turn our attention from positive ways of avoiding disciplinary problems to handling more difficult students and situations. See you then!