Walla Walla: A compassionate approach to discipline

This blog post was written by Jim Sporleder, principal of Walla Walla’s Lincoln High School, and originally ran on the Aces Too High website.

Sporleder has led his staff at the district’s alternative high school to take a compassionate approach to student discipline. Even though the results — an 85% drop in suspensions — have proven themselves, some people still think a bigger bat is the solution to behavior problems. In this essay, Sporleder compares the punitive approach, which he used for years, with the compassionate approach to student discipline.  Tell us your story about student discipline in the comments below or on our Facebook page.

Before I learned about how toxic stress impaired a student to problem-solve or to take in new knowledge, I disciplined students in what I thought was a respectful approach. I took time to listen, I shared with the student why his or her behavior was inappropriate, and then I gave what I thought was a consequence that matched the infraction.

When a student came to my office that had just blown up at a teacher, I shared with that student that in the work place, if he did that with a boss, he could lose his job and be out of work. I used to have a saying: “Discipline teaches; punitive discipline hurts.” I’ve had a history of being a relationship guy, and I have always interacted with students fairly and built positive relationships.

Two years ago I was introduced to the ACE Study and how toxic stress blocks the brain’s ability to process information. The student is in a fight or flight mode. This is when I took a hard look at my discipline philosophy and accountability and realized that I had been working with students who had toxic stress in a way that just didn’t work. Yes, I had to look in the mirror and say, “Jim, you are wrong, and you need to change.”

I’ll give you an example of what that change looked like. A 16-year-old student was sent to my office for flicking a lighter in class and refusing to give it to the teacher. When he was sent to the office I simply asked for the lighter. The student refused to give it to me. I asked him to keep it simple, give me the lighter and return to class. He refused again to give me the lighter. In a calm voice, I said that he really didn’t have a choice. I showed him the other lighters that were in my top drawer, and I explained that I was not asking him to do anything different than I have asked other students that have brought lighters to school.

The young man blew up and said that he was not going to give me his lighter and yelled: “F— you”.  I have a large window that looks out to the front of the office and the young man stormed out, stopped outside of the office and flipped me off through the window and repeated “F— you, Sporleder.”

Keeping a distance as to not escalate him further, I followed the boy to make sure that he was walking off campus and not back to the classroom. Before getting to the gate, he turned and yelled at me again, “F— you, Sporleder.” On my way back to my office, a teacher stopped me. She told me that the boy’s mother just left town and did not tell him or his sister that she was leaving. The boy lived with his father and went to his mom’s house every day after school until his dad picked him up after he got off work. Wow! His mom leaves town and abandons an already fragile boy.

Two years ago, I would have let the boy know that he was not going to talk to me or any other staff member in that way, and given him a five-day out-of-school suspension. However, as a result of learning about adverse childhood experiences and the toll they take on kids, I took a different approach.

I called the father, told him what had happened and asked him and his son to come back to school the following morning. I explained that his son would do in-school suspension (ISS). In-school suspension means the student returns to school, but he is assigned to the ISS room where he is isolated from peers for the day and his school work is brought to him.

The next morning I was pleasantly surprised when the boy and his father appeared in my office — I knew how much the boy hated ISS and that he would rather have had out-of-school suspension. I told the teen that I really appreciated having him come back to school and that I did not take anything that he said personally. It was important for me to let the boy know that I knew he was under a lot of stress and that I really felt for him. I told him that at Lincoln, we love our students unconditionally, which means that even though he blew up at me, I still loved him. For infractions such as this, it is important to hold students accountable and have them receive a fair consequence, which he would carry out at school. I placed him in ISS for two days.

While in the ISS room he told the ISS teacher that he had “really lost his sh—“. He also told her about his mother leaving town, and that he was really concerned about her safety. Later, he came to my office and apologized for blowing up at me.

What does a compassionate approach have to offer that’s more useful than my old method of discipline? We looked for the cause of the behavior. We identified what it was. We showed compassion for what the student was going through. And we acknowledged his stress.

Those who may stop reading at this point will miss the complete process: The boy was still held accountable for his behavior – he spent two days in ISS, doing his homework and talking with a caring teacher.

Compare that with the old way: I tell him that he or any other student cannot speak to me in the manner in which he exploded. I give him a five-day out-of-school suspension, with no supervision. So, he gets five free days to do what he wants to do, with the result that there is little to no consequence, he misses school and homework, and he learns nothing about how to behave differently.

The story does not stop here. The student and I talked about triggers and how to identify when that emotion was ready to explode. We talked about the options that he had before allowing himself to get into the red zone, where he physiologically cannot problem-solve, his brain is flooded with cortisol and blocks his ability to make good decisions.

Too many times in education, we think that the bigger the bat, the more it hurts, the more the student learns. We have to get out of this mindset that somehow the punishment needs to hurt. The truth of the matter is that it does hurt kids, but in a way that hurts us, too. They walk away, labeled by the system, and end up costing us much more in tax dollars on the other side — in police, courts, jails, emergency services, welfare, unemployment…you get the idea.

Howard Behar, the retired president of Starbucks, wanted to come and see what Lincoln was all about. He had read about our new approach and asked for some time to sit down and visit. I had shared with him the story of the student who blew up at me, and how we handled the incident. I pulled three students in from summer school to let him talk to them freely. Two students did not have any discipline history, but were failing at their previous school and since coming to Lincoln, both shared that they feel a part of a family and they know that the Lincoln staff cares for them and their education.

The third student shared how he has learned to handle his anger in a more productive way.  He told Howard that when he goes into the red zone, it blocks him from making the best choices for that situation. He then went on to share how he uses this strategy at home.

“I know now that I can either stoke the fire and make things worse, or I can allow the fire to die down and go out,” he said. That student was the same boy who blew up at me over a lighter. He still has to deal with anger, but his outbursts are getting further and further apart. If there is an outburst, he knows how to process through it and he holds himself accountable.

I could not have written this essay if the consequence was five days of out-of-school suspension. We would have lost the opportunity to teach the student about toxic stress, how it impacts the brain, and strategies to self-regulate when he feels his trigger is getting close to going off. And yes, he understands accountability and consequences.

A compassionate approach or a punitive approach: Which one do you think has the greater impact on students? Which one encourages self-value, empowerment, and a confidence that they can work through their problems?

We want to hear from you! Tell us your story about student discipline in the comments below or on our Facebook page.

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1 Comment

  1. Bob Hankinson June 19, 2015

    I can see the sense of what you are doing. I like the linkage of understanding and still imposing a punishment. I am definitely in favor of keeping the students in school as much of the time as possible. The rest of the school have to see that there was a punishment, but the student does not get a school holiday and the parent is not given an unwanted extra task or worry. Five days on video games is not a punishment, even if the student welcomes it at first, the loss of social contact will be a deterrent for most kids.


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