Dunce caps, “The Box” and other forms of scholastic punishment

dunce.jpgThe days of the dunce cap are long gone (correct me if I’m wrong), but isolation punishment, it seems, is alive and well in schools today.

At Joaquin Miller Elementary School, it takes the form of “The Box.” It actually sounds scarier than it is; it’s a timeout on the 4-square court, a last resort used to avert suspensions.

The Box is not a new disciplinary tactic, but it recently came under scrutiny. Some parents complained that it was being used as a consequence for missing or incomplete homework. The discipline policy changed as a result, and incomplete homework is no longer a Boxable offense.

Joaquin Miller, like other schools, also has an elaborate rewards system for good behavior, offering Lucky Buck$, Happy Grams (notes home) and something called Free Time Friday.

At Lincoln Child Center, a non-public school in Oakland for emotionally disturbed youth, each kindergartener had a cardboard superhero which corresponded to them. The better they behaved, the higher their superheroes moved on the wall. Teachers also offered Bonus Bucks for good behavior.

On a visit to Lincoln, I also observed the other end of the rewards-sanctions continuum: The Quiet Room. It is a padded room where out-of-control kids are sent to calm down for a few minutes before they can hurt themselves or someone else. Then again, maybe that’s more of a safety measure than a form of discipline.

What are other examples of rewards and consequences used at schools do to keep the peace and motivate kids to behave? Do any of them go too far (or not far enough)?

Katy Murphy

Education reporter for the Oakland Tribune. Contact me at kmurphy@bayareanewsgroup.com.

  • Caroline

    You want discipline, try KIPP. The much-praised KIPP Bridge in Oakland (which has such high attrition that its 8th grade is practically empty by graduation, but that’s another story) participates in the same KIPP disciplinary system that I described in a February 2007 blog post about San Francisco’s KIPP schools. The portion in quotes is transcribed from the parent handbook of KIPP S.F. Bay Academy.
    KIPP’s discipline system relies on shunning and public humiliation.

    The punishment system, called The Bench, is for violations from physical aggression and vandalism to untucked shirt, chewing gum or talking to a benched student. It lasts for two days if the benched miscreant does everything right.

    My information comes from the KIPP San Francisco Bay Academy handbook. I understand that this is fairly standard in KIPP schools.

    Transcribed from the KIPP San Francisco Bay Academy handbook [bracketed sections are my inserts]:

    “If a student makes one of the poor choices [listed infractions], he or she must be “off the team” and is subjected to the following until earning his/her way off:
    No talking, except to staff (freshmen and sophomores) [KIPP refers to its students, who are in grades 5-8, as freshmen through seniors, and the student body as a team].
    Wearing a bench sticker
    Loss of all privileges
    Silent lunch away from the team [the rest of the students]
    Detention from 5-5:30
    Grade level appropriate letter explaining why s/he should be accepted back to the team
    Participation in a family meeting [it’s not clear whether this means the student’s family or is referring to the school community as a family] (in all cases except talking to bench student, gum, and untucked shirt)
    One or more logical consequences as decided by teacher/admin…
    Public apology at Grade Level Team and Family (juniors and seniors)
    Meeting with Student Discipline Committee (SDC) where they review the student’s apology letter and decide whether s/he should be off the bench…”

    [If the SDC and/or asst. principal so decide, the student is benched until another review the following week.]

    [There are also time-outs, with a time-out space in each classroom.]

    Needless to say, this discipline system is controversial among those who are aware of it (given that KIPP doesn’t exactly trumpet it far and wide as a secret to success). Some view it as oppressive and racist that middle-class observers would admire a disciplinary system used on low-income children of color that most would never tolerate for their own kids. Others say kids from different cultures need and expect different types of discipline.

  • Sue

    Older son always chose when he needed time-outs in elementary school. He’s got a similar arrangement using the resource room at Skyline, just as he did at Montera Middle School. The neurological issues of his autism make it vital for him when he becomes overwhelmed by too much noise, emotion, sensory over-stimulation, etc. It’s really helped him get through his days without misbehaving.

    Time-outs are also used at home by both our kids. Younger son, who’s not disabled, still needs his time to regain his self-control. It can be rough for a 10-y-o to live with an autistic teen.

    So, whatever discipline is used – if it works, if kids can get themselves together, understand what’s expected (needs to be *reasonable* expectations), and then meet those expectations – it’s good discipline.

  • Debora

    I am a Joaquin Miller Parent. At several PTA meetings we talked openly about the box. Most parents agreed that the box was a good alternative to other forms of discipline. Our biggest struggle was the rules were not clearly outlined. After listening to parents, our principal Ms. Obodozie spelled out the rules clearly and sent them home with every student.

    Personally, I believe some of the rules are lax, such as no punishment for forgetting homework, just working on the homework at recess. Others think the rules are on the harsh side. But as a school, as parents, and as a community we stand by the rules, and support using the BOX as a disciplinary tool.

    As a parent I am satisfied with the process we used in coming up with rules and consequences we can stand behind.

  • Mr. G

    This is the great thing about having options.

    I think that school discpline policies and philosophies should be communicated so that parents know how strict a school will be and how children will be punished when they misbehave. Then parents can make that a part of the decision making process. Some parents understand that their kids need firmer boundaries. Some kids are more sensitive and require less discipline. There is not one size that fits all. Put a kid who needs discipline and clearly defined parameters in a school that offers neither, and no one learns. Put a child who responds quickly to any authoritative voice in a school that enforces harsher discipline, and they will retreat and have difficulties.

    There isn’t anything wrong with KIPP for students who respond to that type of environment. I doubt even the people at KIPP would say it’s for everyone. But if it works, then so be it (as long as it is within the rule of law). If it works for so few kids that they are unable to sustain their schools, then the schools will close. But there should be a range of discipline philosophies out there. It makes for a stronger, more diverse system.