When only a few misbehave, punishing all students is unfair


January 21, 2001|By T. Berry Brazelton, m.d. | T. Berry Brazelton, m.d.,NEW YORK TIMES SPECIAL FEATURES

T. Berry Brazelton received many letters after writing a column about misbehaving children in the classroom. Here is a sampling:

Guilderland, N.Y.: Please reconsider your response to the parent who was concerned because her child's entire class was being punished for the misbehavior of a few students. I believe such punitive "discipline" will only further alienate and frustrate the students who don't follow the rules. Furthermore, such a policy will undermine the relationship between students and faculty, creating an "us against them" mentality.

In my experience, students often try to remain loyal to their peers and resist attempts to demonize classmates.

Additionally, such a policy runs the risk of infuriating at-risk students -- without offering any hope of real, positive behavioral change.

The parent who wrote to you should continue to support his / her child and organize other parents to insist on the development of a more humane and effective approach to problems within the school community.

Langhorne, Pa.: To punish cooperative, well-behaved students in the hope that some group dynamic will occur enabling them to change the behavior of the unruly youngsters is not only unsound pedagogy but also unethical. More importantly, the tactic is not productive.

As a retired high school teacher and the parent of four adult children, it is my experience that the one thing students understand and value is fairness. Nothing will cause a youngster to lose respect for his teachers more surely than to be punished for the misbehavior of others.

Indeed, parents should support teachers. Unfortunately, sometimes the teacher is so wrong that to cooperate would be a real disservice to the child who really needs your support.

Kent, Wash.: The good kids' behavior should be complimented, rewarded and continually reinforced by the teachers.

If the teachers are overwhelmed, they should seek help from their peers and other available resources. Contacting the parents of the kids exhibiting bad behavior is also in order.

Schools should be demonstrating that each individual is responsible for his / her own behavior.

Monte Rio, Calif.: This practice is unfair. It has not worked in any of my children's classrooms thus far, and I can't believe it ever will.

The children who should be encouraged and praised are not -- and they shouldn't have to do the teacher's job.

Vero Beach, Fla.: Children have enough stress in schools nowadays. Please don't make them little policepeople too! Worrying about whether Billy Bob is acting up is taking away from my child's learning.

Beaumont, Texas: I always thought learning was the "job" of students, not fixing social ills that the adults of the community cannot, or will not, fix.

A. What a wonderful spread of responses! All of them are thoughtful and contribute to a much better answer than mine.

I was attempting to see the point of view of teachers who are overwhelmed by misbehaving children.

Teachers today complain of having to be therapists for the difficult children and social workers for their parents. Since they aren't likely to have been trained for either of those roles, they don't have any energy left for teaching.

My idea was to try to shift control of the misbehaving children to the peer group and to emphasize that parents need to back up teachers. But, as many of you pointed out, this approach isn't fair to the children who can control themselves and want to use their energy for learning.

As your suggestions show, we need a better, more individualized system that will help disturbed students without penalizing the controlled ones. Dr. Stanley I. Greenspan, a child psychiatrist, and I raised this as a goal for the early grades in our recent book, "The Irreducible Needs of Children" (Perseus Books, 2000).

Our educational system needs to be individualized to children's needs from the first. We need therapeutic approaches that begin early, not in the eighth grade. Otherwise, teachers are overwhelmed and vulnerable to the undesirable behaviors that result from the few students whose needs have never been met.

We all need to join together to work toward better solutions in our schools.

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