How “Straightening Kids Out” Actually Cripples Them

27 Sep

I started a new Deep workshop with 6th grade students at a local middle school the other day. It was supposed to be a simple day—fill out some surveys, introduce ourselves, go over procedures—but it turned out to be one of the most frustrating hours of my life.

Not because of the kids—they are hilarious, and I adore them, and I called their parents to tell them so—but because of how the kids were used to being disciplined.

Ten minutes in, at least four kids had commented at how strange it was that I hadn’t yelled at them yet. I told them I wasn’t going to yell at them—I never yell—and they laughed at me. “You’re too nice,” they said. “Other teachers would have straightened us out by now.” Another said, “We’re underachievers. You gotta keep us in line.”

“No,” I said. “You have to keep you in line. You are going to make our rules, and you are going to stick to them. I’m just here to remind you of them and make sure you practice them.” They shook their heads at me, certain that I was nuts and had no idea what I was doing.

The reason I didn’t “straighten them out”—by which I mean yell at them until they shut up—was because, while yelling at or lecturing kids gets immediate and obvious results that my style of discipline takes much longer to achieve, it also does three other things:

  1.  Teaches students that yelling is what mature adults do to get what they want, though we all know honey catches more flies than vinegar in the real world. Though yelling sometimes works in the short term, it is rarely effective in the long term.
  2. Takes away students’ agency and self-worth—rather than complying because they know that it is the right thing to do, or because they understand the long-term consequences of their actions, they do it because they are scared of getting screamed at. This can be devastating to a kid’s sense of purpose and self-worth; one study shows that being constantly yelled at is a better predictor of future mental illness than sexual or physical abuse.
  3. Cripples students in creative or independent endeavors. Which is pretty much every high-paying job ever. Students who grow up with lecture-and-yell discipline learn to rely on a supervisor to keep them in line, rather than doing it for themselves, and bosses hate employees like that. I certainly wouldn’t hire someone who needed me to look over their shoulder all day.

So what should we do instead?

Procedures, baby. Instead of screaming at kids for doing the wrong thing, be fair to them and show them exactly how to do the right thing. Help them practice it over and over until it is easy. Any time they forget, ask them to do it over again correctly. And praise the heck out of them when they get it right because adjusting to school life is tough, and they deserve some serious kudos for getting the hang of it. I’ve started this process with my new students, and I’ll admit: it’s slow, and it takes a lot of work and repetition. But they are awesome kids, and they are absolutely worth that effort.

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One Response to “How “Straightening Kids Out” Actually Cripples Them”

  1. Rain Falls September 27, 2012 at 9:56 pm #

    funny you should mention procedures: Tom Tyler’s research with adults in the workplace provides dramatic evidence that procedural fairness towards employees has a much greater effect (80 vs 20) on employee compliance with workplace rules than rewards and punishment.

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