Family & Education

A Better Way to Discipline Kids? The Results Suggest ‘Yes’ (Part 1 of 2)

By teaching children the tools and skills to adjust their behavior, disciplinary referrals can be cut by 80 percent or better—and a lot more learning takes place.
BY Matthew John TIMEMay 10, 2022 PRINT

Pretty much everything under the sun has been tried.

In the olden days, corporal punishment seems to have been the approach de rigueur.

“Full of blows” was how celebrated Roman poet Horace described his teacher.

“Racks, claws, and various instruments of torture” were the tools of discipline used to straighten out a young and rebellious, not-yet-saintly St. Augustine.

Rulers applied to the knuckles with startling force at the hands of an old nun were my father’s sharpest school-day recollections.

In recent decades, a bevy of newer, spare-the-rod-inspired approaches has come about—ranging from sparkly sticker rewards to punishingly ponderous detentions.

But nearly 2,000 years later, educators and parents alike are still trying to figure out just what exactly is the best way to rein in bad behavior.

If the data are any indicator, we’ve still got a ways to go.

In the most recent set of national figures available from the U.S. Department of Education (dating from the 2017–2018 school year), a rather sobering picture emerges.

More than 2.6 million students were given one or more in-school suspensions during the academic year, with nearly just as many (2.5 million) serving time in one or more out-of-school suspensions—the more serious type. To put it into perspective, that’s an alarming 1 out of every 9 students receiving suspensions.

(And that’s to say nothing of the 101,652 students that year who were given the heave-ho: outright expulsions.)

It’s a problem of unsettling proportions, and one expected to only grow in upcoming decades, what with the steady uptick in childhood behavioral disorders.

While most approaches used in the educational world, and (most likely, even if not self-consciously) at home, trace back to the “behavioral conditioning” school of psychology, pioneered by B.F. Skinner, other approaches have emerged in recent years shaped by different lines of thinking.

One that came to my attention nearly a decade ago stands out for its effectiveness. Yet in my conversations with fellow educators, I’ve been surprised by how few have heard of it—much less been trained in it and able to reap its fruits. In many ways, it’s still one of those “best-kept secrets.”

Here’s what it is and how it works.

The approach can be traced back to the work of psychologist Ross W. Greene. He calls his model “Collaborative & Proactive Solutions” (or CPS), and describes it in his 2012 book “Lost at School.” The approach was born over the course of Greene’s two decades on the faculty at Harvard Medical School and while working with legions of schools, educators, and parents to try to find a better way to elicit better behavior. His approach, in a word, is solid.

Three things stand out for me about the CPS approach.

First, it makes no assumptions about why a student is misbehaving or not complying. Typically, we attribute it to failings on the child’s part that need to be curbed through disincentives—or less pleasantly put, punishment. Phrasings like “a bad attitude,” “not being cooperative,” “acting out,” or “disruptive” are common descriptors for the outward manifestation at hand. But they tell little about the why behind it.

As we’ll see in a moment, CPS doesn’t just chalk those issues up to naughtiness or ill intentions that need to be curbed. It’s not about simply snuffing out the problem in the instant. It seeks to probe deeper and find the source of it—which could be very different for two different students, even if outwardly their actions look the same. Kids are different, after all.

Second, it has a wonderfully life-affirming presupposition to it (though I’m not sure if it’s ever been stated this way). Namely, it seems to believe that kids are inherently inclined toward doing good. It’s just that they might not know how. That is, how to control their impulses and act in a way that’s not antagonistic, disruptive, hurtful, and so on.

Those are learned abilities. And like any other ability, some kids learn better than others; some need a helping hand if they’re to pick up the same skills that the next child might intuitively, on his own, early on.

In other words, CPS encourages us to view the child’s breakdown as a sign that there’s work to be done, something to be learned. You could think of the episode at hand—the shoving of another kid, the refusal to take a test—as an invitation, even, to dig a little deeper and find out what tools or skills the child is lacking and needs to develop. Your help is needed. Not just a dose of discipline.

In this capacity, the parent or teacher shifts from adversary to enabler—a much happier, and certainly more fulfilling, role.

Third, the true genius of Green’s CPS approach is that it focuses not so much on the immediate resolution—the cessation of bad behavior—but on long-term solutions. It trades a quick fix (silence, compliance, regret) for a more permanent resolution (new problem-solving skills, self-awareness, and so on).

This is quite a departure from the usual response to classroom disruptions or childly outbursts, where we seek to “put out” the fire as quickly as possible. Our main focus is typically on damage control. We seek to suppress and contain the behavior. A time out or a demerit is meant to act as a future deterrent to said behavior.

The assumption at work goes back to the behavioral school of thought: that you must condition the child to do otherwise. Hence, you create a punishment (for example, off to the principal’s) that exceeds the rewards of the errant behavior (the satisfaction of getting attention, letting off steam, and so on).

It’s a calculus of sorts.

While the behavioral approach certainly has its merits, and when done fairly and consistently, with a good system in place, can work wonders in one’s classroom, it comes with a trade-off that has long haunted me: What happens when my kids go off to the next class, or the next year, and perhaps someone less skilled with discipline or less strict inherits them? How will they act without my stern stares or hearty approbations raining down on them? Will they really be apt to do the right thing?

The research has me worried. It’s been shown that there’s one potentially big flaw: What happens when you remove the system, absent all the rewards and punishments? What incentive is there for a child to “behave” if the impetus was always external?

(Interesting aside: A parallel finding in literacy research involves the use of reward systems such as stars and stickers to motivate young readers. Studies have found that kids actually read less than before once such systems are no longer in place—as when summer break rolls around or next year’s teacher doesn’t do the same.)

So, given all its merits, how does one go about implementing CPS exactly?

It involves a few fascinating, and perhaps counterintuitive moves. Stay tuned for part 2 to find out.

Matthew John
Matthew John is a veteran teacher and writer who is passionate about history, culture, and good literature. He lives in New York.
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