Education Parenting Politics/Community

Schools Should Not Punish Kids Through Exclusion

My son presented me with the note sent home from school: “We will be participating in a fun new activity on Fridays,” it read. “Any kids who have outstanding classwork or who received behavior notices that week won’t be allowed to participate,” it continued.

Immediately, my heart sank, although I tried to hide it because I wanted my reaction to match that of my son’s excitement about this fun activity he would soon enjoy.

Look. I’m not an early childhood educator. I don’t know the particular nuances involved in teaching and managing 30+ rowdy, antsy 8- and 9-year-olds for 7 hours per day. Hell, I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t think I have it in me to perform that job. But I am an educator. A high school educator. And trust me, we have our own set of issues at that level.

In my early years as a teacher, I would have praised this letter home. “Yes!” I would have exclaimed. “Children need to be held to high expectations, both for academic performance and behavior,” I would have proclaimed. But as a more seasoned educator, I’m just not sure things are so black and white.

I agree that children need to be held accountable for their performance, be it academic or behavioral. And I believe that part of our job as educators is to teach students how to behave like cooperative, productive members of society. These are, after all, life skills that will help them function in the adult world and secure things like steady employment, all necessary to survival.

But if there’s one thing I’ve learned on this journey as an educator, it’s that fair doesn’t always mean equal. And equal doesn’t always mean equitable. And ensuring equity means understanding the unique circumstances each child brings into our classrooms — the unique circumstances that shape their value of learning, their behavior, and their understanding of the system as a whole.

Many of our students come to school hungry. They come to school dirty. They come to school with different priorities than those our middle class majority upholds. They come to school unloved, bullied, sick, abused, neglected, struggling, tired of feeling as though they’re treated unfairly, desperate for guidance, desperate for someone to care. And often, they demonstrate their needs in extremely unpalatable ways: verbal outbursts, bullying peers, bullying teachers, engaging in violent acts, neglecting schoolwork. These are tough kids to embrace. Tough kids to love.

But these are the ones who need our love the most.

So why do we exclude them from activities completely unrelated to their “crimes”? Why do we say, “You know what? You did a bad thing the other day. You didn’t finish your work, didn’t adhere to the classroom rules, didn’t treat your peers or teachers nicely, didn’t [insert offense here]. So we’re going to punish you further by not letting you participate in this community that’s supposed to be yours. This community that may be the only thing you have. We’re going to exclude you here in the same way you might be excluded elsewhere”?

Why do we do that?

There has to be a better way. There HAS to be.

Let me be clear: I adore my son’s teacher and school. HE adores his teacher and school. And this has nothing to do with my son’s teacher or school.

Rather, this has everything to do with the system as a whole. A system I, as a teacher, am very much a part of myself. It has to do with how we approach the kids who need our guidance the most. The education and professional development we’re offered as educators for dealing with “problem” students. The school policies in place. The state and federal legislation pertaining to education. Our elected leaders — many of whom have zero experience in the education or educational psychology fields other than having been students themselves, by the way — who make decisions that trickle down to school districts, principals, and classroom teachers.

It has everything to do with our priorities as a society. With our dismissal of those who may be less fortunate. With our tendency to place blame anywhere but on ourselves. With our need to situate everyone in neat little boxes, to expect people to act and be a certain way. With our tendency to equate “otherness” with “bad.” With our fear of the unfamiliar.

Not everyone is like us. Not everyone holds the same values as we do. Not everyone has been offered the same advantages as we have. Each of us is unique. Each of us has been presented with certain privileges others do not enjoy. Each of us carries a cross unlike any cross others have been burdened with.

I may not have the answer to how we can more effectively deal with academic and disciplinary issues in our classrooms. I may not have the answers to how we can be more understanding of others who are different from us or of others who express their frustrations and desperation in ways counter to that which society expects. But I do have an idea of where we can start.

We can start by talking. By seeking to understand.

Let’s talk to and seek to understand the kids who didn’t do their homework or who acted out in seemingly inappropriate ways. Let’s not EXCLUDE, but rather seek to INCLUDE. Let’s allow them to join us in our special Friday activities. Let’s help them to feel as though they are a part of our communities rather than the outcasts.

Let’s talk to and seek to understand people in our everyday lives who don’t meet our expectations. Who believe in things or live lifestyles different from our own. Who don’t look the same, act the same, or feel the same ways we do.

Let’s begin by modeling this in our homes, our classrooms, our neighborhoods, and our cities. Let’s replace negative reinforcement with positive. Who knows? Maybe we can start a trend of inclusion rather than exclusion that extends the nation and world over.