The face of discipline in today’s public school system is changing thanks to Ross Greene, child psychologist and the author of The Explosive Child, a book first published in 1998 and currently the number one best seller on Amazon.com under its Special Needs Parenting section, as well as the follow-up book Lost at School. Both Mother Jones Magazine and Business Insider recently published stories about new disciplinary innovations in American’s school system, while crediting Dr. Greene as its architect.
Education in our public school system is based on teachers assigning tasks to students resulting in reward and punishment along with their curtailing disruptive behavior by doling out strong and swift consequence. This method, rooted in the Skinnerian model of behavioral psychology, says all human behavior is shaped by consequence. His doctrine grew in popularity during the early 20th century, eventually finding its place in America’s school system when educators hoped lagging motivation could be deterred by its implementation. According to this model, negative consequences extinguish unwanted or ‘bad’ behavior while positive consequences (or rewards) promote desirable or ‘good’ behavior. Today, parents find stickers tucked away in their child’s classroom folders, signaling reward for good behavior. These parents also know that the term “being on green” is something worth praising their child for while “being on red” is something to be concerned about.
The traditional disciplinary approach (i.e. time-outs, after-school detentions and the removal of privileges) works for some children. However, for certain children school punishments can produce disastrous results, increasing a student's tendency toward physical or verbal aggression and inducing emotional meltdowns that tax the inner resources of everyone involved.
One Size Does Not Fit All
The phrase “school-to-prison pipeline” describes children who seem to move from the public school system directly into the juvenile and criminal justice system. This type of child may begin his or her school career with visits to the principal’s office for small infractions that occur ad nauseam, an inability to stay seated or a constant talking out of turn. These infractions result in the child’s temporary isolation or other punishments meted out by school authority in hopes of reshaping the child’s disruptive behavior into one conducive for learning. However by middle school this same child has learned nothing from school consequences; in fact the child may now experience classroom meltdowns and can verbally threaten staff to the point of a school suspension. By high school, this child is angry, misunderstood and full of self-defeat. Such bundle of emotions can bring on further acting-out until the student gets expelled from school all together, primed into becoming a 17 year old convict. This type of example is one that demonstrates how traditional gold-standard discipline fails the educational system as well as the student.
In 2011 the Council of State Governments Justice Center published a groundbreaking report that tracked one million school children over a six year period within the state of Texas. The report concluded that students suspended or expelled for minor infractions were three times more likely than their peers to make contact with the juvenile justice system within a year of such disciplinary action. Within this same study, nearly three-quarters of students who qualified for special education services were suspended or expelled at least once, with those students labeled “emotionally disturbed” being the most likely to be suspended or expelled. These findings have resulted in the authors calling” for policymakers everywhere to examine the school disciplinary systems in their jurisdictions” (Fabelo , et. al. page xi).
Between 2011 and 2012, the U.S Department of Education reported 130,000 expulsions and 7 million suspensions among 49 million students between kindergarten and 12th grade, leaving some people to wonder if traditional reward and punishment methods actually enhance the learning process.
In 2014, the U.S Department of Education Office for Civil Rights published a highlighted snapshot of school discipline and found that students with learning and behavioral disabilities were more than twice as likely to be suspended or restrained. According to the snapshot, students with disabilities represent 12% of students enrolled in public schools but 75% of students subject to physical restraint during the school day.
Problem Solving versus Punishment
Ross Greene’s model takes an entirely different approach. Called ‘Collaborative and Proactive Solutions’, or CPS for short, this model is based on the concept that some children lack certain skills. They may have lagging cognitive skills or poor memory, weak verbal abilities, or an inability to accurately read facial cues. These students may struggle at being flexible in their thinking and behavior. They may be poor problem solvers or have short fuses due to neurocognitive deficits. Greene’s approach has roots in scientific study thanks to modern medical technology. The part of the brain known as the prefrontal cortex helps individuals to control impulses as well as organize and prioritize tasks. Therefore, children who don’t respond to traditional methods of discipline are not lacking in intelligence, desire, or the ability to care; their brains are merely wired differently than those children who do respond to external motivators and manage well under traditional school discipline. The philosophy behind CPS is that kids want to do well if they can. When they do poorly or can’t perform, it’s due to a lack of skill rather than poor attitude; therefore consequences hold no value for these students.
Greene’s approach revolves around something called “Plan B” which comprises three basic ingredients. The first stage is called “empathy” — gathering information directly from the child to understand his or her perspective. During this stage the teacher or other school staff has no other job than to listen well. The second stage is called “Define Adult Concerns”. This involves bringing into the mix an adult’s concern or perspective regarding the same issue. The third stage is called “Invitation”. This involves the child and the adult taking time to brainstorm solutions in order to arrive at a behavioral change that is realistic and mutually satisfying to both.
Greene has tested his theory in many different settings (child psychiatric clinics and state juvenile facilities) with positive results. It’s important to note for those individuals who consider his program too soft or not tough enough on incorrigible children, schools using the CPS approach have shown great promise. During the 2009-2010 academic year at Central School in South Berwick, Maine, discipline referrals decreased from 146 in a given year to 45. During that same academic year, a reduction in suspensions was noted, from two given out the year before to zero. After implementing Greene’s program in 2011, a hospital group in Boston called Cambridge Health Alliance reported a reduction in the use of physical and chemical restraints — from 20 cases a month to zero.
Greene, R. W. (2014). The Explosive Child (Revised 5th edition). New York: Harper Collins
Greene, R.W. (2014). Lost at School (Revised 2nd edition). New York: Scribner
Lewis, Reynolds Katherine (July/August 2015 Issue) Mother Jones Magazine, What If Everything You Knew About Disciplining Kids Was Wrong retrieved from http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2015/05/
Weller, Chris (July 13, 2015) Business Insider, The American Education System Completely Misunderstands how to Discipline Children retrieved from http://finance.yahoo.com/news/american-education-system
Civil Rights Data Collection, (March 2014), Issue Brief No. 1, U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights, retrieved from http://www2ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/docs
Fabelo, Tony, et al. Breaking Schools Rules (July 2011), published by The Council for State Governments Justice Center, retrieved from http://csgjusticecenter.org/youth/breaking-school-rules-report