Firing on all Eight Cylinders!
“She is so troubled she can’t come to school,” Ayana’s mother shared with me as she reported her daughter’s absence for the day.
“What happened to Ayana?” I wondered and asked.
“The kids were texting last night, and it turned ugly. Ayana defended herself, and then this all turned up in social media. She is deeply distraught about what was posted about her and wonders what she did to be treated this way. What are you going to do about this?” Ayana’s mother pressed me as principal of Vineyard Lutheran School.
The night before Tatyana (who lived with her grandparents) and Ayana were texting, and Tatyana typed something negative about her own parents. Ayana came to the defense of parents generally, noting “they do their best.” Tatyana disagreed in ALL CAPS and added, “How would you know, your father is dead.” The texting ceased with that, yet it was not the end of the conversation. The matter moved to social media pages, where Tatyana posted some deeply derogatory comments about Ayana. These posts opened the floodgates for others attending VLS to add their own degrading opinions of Ayana, joining Tatyana in her demeaning characterizations.
“What are you going to do about this?” echoed in my mind….
Effective discipline hinges on four clearly defined parameters to ground policy and on a set of four actionable procedures for building a positive climate within a school through the system of discipline. In previous articles published by LEA, I suggested how the prompts NOT, TO, FOR, and WITH shape the future of Lutheran schools. Given this matrix of support and control, I could choose, deciding:
- NOT to do anything. After all this didn’t happen at school.
- TO punish Tatyana for her mean-spirited remarks. After all, this was a cruel attack.
- FOR creating some lessons to build a context for a moral higher ground at VLS. After all, this was a Lutheran school with high expectations for all students, and they would comply.
- To talk WITH Tatyana: What was she thinking at the time, what was she thinking now, who was affected by what she had done, and what she thought she could do to make things right. And I could choose to talk WITH Ayana when she came back to school, knowing it was equally important to talk WITH the one offended as it was to talk WITH the offender in trying situations. After all, these were God’s children in the community of VLS.
Effective discipline hinges on four clearly defined parameters to ground policy and on a set of four actionable procedures for building a positive climate within a school through the system of discipline. Side-by-side and taken together, metaphorically as a V8 block of cylinders powering a muscle car, these eight metrics can drive a powerful dynamo of support and control for students and staff, and thereby also catalyze and nurture a pro-social climate of restored relationships within a Lutheran school.
As each of the eight are detailed, questions at the right can guide you as you examine your policies and procedures. Fine-tuned to fire on all eight cylinders of a discipline system, these questions will forge a distinctive Lutheran ethos for a thriving school community.
1 The Infrastructure of Policy: Clear Expectations
What standards are held for our students? Is there consistent application of our standards—across grade levels and from teacher to teacher? How do we define our discipline plan? Clarity of expectations is the common denominator in the literature and practice of school discipline systems (all of which fit across the dimensions of NOT, TO, FOR, WITH). Clear expectations give students opportunities to make good decisions. In advocating for the breadth of academic, social, procedural, and safety expectations, it is essential that school values undergird norms that are precise, positive, and simple to remember (Curwin, 2018).
For Tatyana and Ayana, and the rest of the middle school, we chose the quadrant to work WITH all involved; teachers knew WITH was always our first consideration. All students knew our aim was to take the time to restore relationships in our community; the infraction in this particular matter in social media was “disrupting the learning process.” Few if any transgressions of the school code were overlooked at VLS because expectations were clearly understood.
2 The Infrastructure of Policy: Scriptural Foundations
Does God punish or forgive? What do our students learn about God in this regard? National Lutheran School Accreditation sets the bar for a “climate imitating the Gospel and Jesus Christ” (NLSA Standard 2C). This Gospel hinges upon God, who “restored our relationship with Him through Christ, and has given us this ministry of restored relationships” (2 Corinthians 2:17-19 GW).
The proper translation of the Greek in the narrative of the paralytic’s healing by Jesus (Matthew 9, Mark 2, and Luke 5) illuminates the active, forgiving nature of God. Jesus said, “Be courageous, child, your sins are being forgiven.” The present indicative tense in the Greek gives an immediacy to the authority of Jesus (Gibbs, 2006). At that moment, sins are forgiven the paralytic. While the atonement for sin happened with the death of Jesus by crucifixion, that pivotal sacrifice from the past gives the “Son of Man the authority to be forgiving sins on the earth” (Matthew 9:6). This emphasis on the forgiveness now for each sin frees far more than what is typically expressed as “our sins were forgiven.” Christ forgives, now, and our charge is to proclaim this perpetual gift of forgiveness.
At VLS, God was characterized as the God who loves, because “God is love” (I John 4:8). Our school community understood that God’s Law convicts each of us of our shortcomings and transgressions, and while deserving punishment for sin, God in his mercy sent Jesus to this world to take the punishment in order to restore his relationship with all people. The NLSA Validation Team recognized this strong ethos of our learning community, noting that every child was considered a redeemed and honored student at VLS.
3 The Infrastructure of Policy: Luther’s Two-Fold Kingdom Theology
Into which of these two kingdoms does our current discipline plan fall? Trust that the Law and Gospel serve to guide your community to choices that would (on the right-hand) honor God and (on the left-hand) honor one another. The discipline plan to work WITH students through each trespass holds each to be accountable for personal behavior. Given the pride of humankind, there are those times when it is necessary to resort TO doing something to a student (detention, suspension) not as a final consequence for misbehavior but rather to invite reflection and contrition, always with the aim to lead one to humble confession of the trespass and with the spiritual inclination to respond with swift absolution. Any system of discipline should aim to moderate behavior in ways that ascribe dignity to all students (Curwin, 2018).
This demands a cautious, artful, Lutheran approach. Given any transgression, the mindset of the Kingdom of the Left insists that payment through punishment resolves or brings closure to the transgression while presuming that punishment becomes a lesson to curb and prevent future transgressions. Alternatively, the pull to err on the side of the Kingdom of the Right is the Achilles heel of Lutheran schools; imparting grace when there is little or no humbled confession or remorse cheapens grace.
Ayana froze, in the past she had battled back with words or just avoided conflict, now in this instance she was caught in an affect of confusion and despair. For Tatyana, the simplest course of action for me would be to dole out a consequence TO her for her posts. Would punishment endured by Tatyana insure that she would refrain from attacks in the future, or once punished, would she become embittered by the consequences? Swift judgement (Left) would communicate that with punishment the case was closed, thereby cutting her off from the opportunity (Right) to contend with her transgression and the opportunity to confess, receive absolution, and make things right for Ayana. Equally important, how could this wholehearted approach remain something that would not be taken lightly by Tatyana?
4 The Infrastructure of Policy: Committed Resources
How do we prioritize confronting behavioral issues? Are we equipped to treat each child fairly no matter their background?Every behavior is a means of communicating and every misbehavior is an opportunity to connect with kids encountering difficulties. The current report card on the mental health of America is alarming:
- 60% of the population has experienced at least one traumatic experience as a child
- America’s children suffer from anxiety (37%), social withdrawal (39%), lethargy (36%), self-isolation (30%), and irrational fear (28%)
- 80% of parents report concerns for their children’s futures (Rulye et al., 2022)
Traditional school systems, warns the Surgeon General of California, are not structured to address the “insidious onslaught of adversity which undermines learning” (Harris, 2018). Compounding the matter, coercive disciplinary practices, encompassing detention and suspension as sole and direct consequences, “retraumatize” fragile children (Bethel, 2014).
The morning that Ayana missed school, Tatyana was summoned to the office as the investigation commenced. Tatyana shared how hurt she was that Ayana had often teased her about living with her grandparents. The school counselor met with Tatyana, who realized the social media posts didn’t help her to get even or feel better, instead it only made things worse. Upon her return to school the next day, Ayana also met with the counselor over the matter. Subsequently, the two young ladies, both understandably wary, were brought together in an encounter to talk about who had been harmed. This was the answer to the mother’s question, “What are you going to do about this?” which was shared with both the mother and grandparents after the girls met in an encounter with the counselor and me.
5 The Establishment of Procedure: Processing Referrals
How promptly and seriously do we address behavioral transgressions? What input do we commonly seek? What are the processes to be followed? The way educators treat children directly impacts what they believe about themselves as students (Desautles, 2020). The American Psychological Association recognizes three facets of the mind: interwoven are cognition (thinking), affect (emotional well-being), and connation (behavior). Research on more than 500,000 ninth graders revealed that interventions to help students improve behaviors with connections and restorative aims decreased the incidence of transgressions and proved ten times more effective at raising academic performance than efforts at merely raising test scores (Plomin, 2018); the mind is indeed symbiotic. Every behavioral encounter must be an authentic effort to improve student affect and connation, recognizing that student behavior is a strong predictor of cognitive/scholastic success, which is one very clear purpose of schooling.
Tatyana and Ayana each wrote deep apologies with the assistance of a template, and each read her letter to the other in the presence of the counselor. With this, Ayana felt more comfortable at school. Because they had received written communication about the referral that first day, middle school teachers encouraged all their students to insert #P489 (Philippians 4:8-9) into future online conversations when social media posts might turn negative and derogatory. Inserting #P489 would help remind all of the Apostle Paul’s encouragement to “think on these things,” that are true, noble, right, pure, lovely, respectable, excellent, and deserving praise. Some spoke to Ayana about the matter in support, some apologized for their involvement.
6 The Establishment of Procedure: Mediating Learning Experiences
Do we understand and use a contemporary understanding of trauma and neurological science in our procedures? Leading-edge science recognizes the mind for its innate neuroplasticity, capable of forging pathways of proactive rational thought and emotional grit when stimuli might otherwise cause a stumble or an ever-dizzying default into emotional maladaptation. Vygotsky’s interpsychological scaffolding (1986) can redirect and train the brain to rationally self-correct, building upon inputs and processes that arrive at pro-social outputs (Feuerstein, 2010).
Battered by the strife of life, the trauma that haunted the minds of both Tatyana and Ayana led them down the short-circuited path of emotional hijack: for Tatyana to fight back in social media and for Ayana a preference to avoid school (flee or freeze). Counseling, reflection, and encountering the matter face-to-face illuminated a different, higher path in the cortex of the brain. Mediating the persistent default of emotional hijack elevated the matter to a feat (that hard work of honest self-assessment) of rational uplifts in higher order thinking and executive function skills so essential in navigating this 21st-century world and VLS.
7 The Establishment of Procedure: Tracking Behavior
For those who frequent the office due to misbehaviors, how often do they check in and with whom? Tracking behavior through documented referrals is not intended to be punitive. Rather than recording mounting transgressions, the information is intentionally scanned for patterns of improvement. Behavior referrals stating facts and avoiding opinions driven by emotion and past history can be retrieved from the Student Information System. More importantly, the SIS also tracks the ministry and message of restored relationships.
At VLS the principal and counselor conferred over all referrals every week. The student behavior tab in the Student Information System included a field, visible to the parent or guardian of the child, for recording an intentionally brief overview, just the facts of the transgression, the restorations, and any resulting consequences. The SIS also included a field to enter confidential notes for details accessible only to the principal and counselor. We elected never to rank the severity of the transgression in the SIS with demerits for misbehaving, knowing that God no longer keeps a record of wrong, choosing instead to keep the focus on ways leading to contrition, confession and absolution as the avenue for restoring the offender back into our VLS community.
8 The Establishment of Procedure: Knowing and Granting Forgiveness
How do we hold our students accountable for their behavior? Do they know their misbehaviors are forgiven, and that this forgiveness is inspired by Jesus’ teaching to love and forgive? Forgiveness is fading at a time when this world needs relief as acutely as ever (of all the resources linked to the QR Code in the References, start with Keller, 2021). In our Lutheran doctrine, absolution grants comfort and consolation through the forgiveness of sins; contrition and faith are never prerequisites for absolving sin. Confession alone, evident in humbling oneself given the reality of the harm inflicted on another does not have to be long and drawn out (recall the brevity of the tax collector’s confession, “God be merciful to me, a sinner” in Luke 18), nor can we judge another’s sincerity since forgiveness is a gift of God which we can only proclaim. Absolution re-establishes the offender into fellowship, and fellowship dictates community responsibility to suffer and rejoice (Romans 12:15ff) with the one now restored.
At the conclusion of the final encounter, Tatyana asked what would happen next. The counselor replied that she would check-in from time-to-time to make certain what was started in restoring their relationship was moving forward, to which Tatyana replied, “Is that all?” The counselor asked if there was anything else that needed to be done to make things right, to which Tatyana responded, “No, I don’t think so. I’ve learned a lot about myself from this, thank you.” The counselor brought closure to the encounter, stating her hope that in the process both recognized that Jesus’ words to the paralytic in Matthew 9, “your sins are being forgiven” were intended for each of them too.
Did the two ever become friends? Not really, they merely learned to respect one another in school and on-line. Yet there were a few tears in the eyes of students and teachers from the middle school attending the spring concert when the two sang a pop duet together, “I have been freed, I am redeemed.”
- Does God punish or forgive? What do our students learn about God in this regard?
- What standards are held for our students? Is there consistent application of our standards—across grade levels and from teacher to teacher?
- How do we hold our students accountable for their behavior? Do they know their misbehaviors are forgiven and that this forgiveness is inspired by Jesus’ teaching to love and forgive?
- How often, and with whom, does check in occur with those who frequent the office for misbehavior?
- Do we understand and use a contemporary understanding of trauma and neurological science in our procedures?
This outline invites you to probe policies and ponder procedures to build a theological, neurological, and psychological infrastructure around your school discipline plan. You are invited to consider previous installments in LEA’s ShapingtheFuture concerning restorative practices leading to justice and bolstered student affect through the QR Code at right. Framed within the eight cylinders driving these considerations is the “value and necessity” of confession and absolution reflected in the strong position it occupies in the teachings of Luther and the Lutheran confessions. The essential special feature of individual confession and absolution is concentrated in the comfort and consolation of the forgiveness of sins which is personally and individually imparted. This personal assurance and certainty of mind and heart is a must for the healing ministry of the church” (Koehler, 2011, p 51).
Kevin Brockberg, Ph.D., is Executive Counsel for Christian Education, Indiana District, The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod.
Photo courtesy the author.
Bethel, C.D., et al. (2014). Adverse childhood experience: Assessing the impact on health and school engagement and the mitigating role of resilience. Heath Affairs. 33(12), 2016-2115.
Curwin, R.L., Mendler, A.N., and Mendler, B.D. (2018). Discipline with dignity (4th ed). Alexandria, VA: ASCD.
Desautles, L.L. (2020). Connections over compliance: Rewiring our perceptions of discipline. Deadwood, OR: Wyatt-MacKenzie.
Feuerstein, R., Feuerstein, R., and Faul, L.H. (2010). Beyond smarter: Mediated learning and the brain’s capacity to change. NY: Teachers College Press.
Gibbs, J.A. (2006). Concordia commentary series. St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House.
Harris, N.B. (2018). The deepest well: Healing the long-term effects of childhood adversity. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Keller, T. (September 16, 2021). The fading of forgiveness: Tracing the disappearance of the thing we need most. Comment Magazine.
Koehler, W.J. (2011). Counseling and confession: The role of confession and absolution in pastoral counseling. St Louis, MO: Concordia Seminary Press.
Plomin, R. (2018). Blueprint: How DNA makes us who we are. London: Allen Lane.
Rulye, M., Child, L., and Dome, N. (2022). The school wellness wheel: A framework for addressing trauma, culture and mastery to raise student achievement. Bloomington, IN: Marzano Press.
Vygotsky, L. (1986). Thought and Language (A. Kozulin, trans). Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press
Restorative Justice: A Theology of School Discipline
Meeting Parental Expectations in the Age of Accountability
Fountains of Faith and Knowledge LEA Convocation 2008
What's in Your Suitcase
Fantastic Field Trip-Stop 3: The Food Court
Be-All and End-All
Eyes, Minds, and Hearts LEA Convocation 2019
Out of Your Tree