Carla Shalaby on Radically Inclusive Discipline - ASCD
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October 1, 2021

Carla Shalaby on Radically Inclusive Discipline

Challenging behaviors can be an opportunity for educators to model care for others.

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Classroom Management
Equity
Illustration of four people holding hands in a circle
Credit: October 2021

What would schools look like if classroom management were focused more on communal care and personal accountability and less on exclusion and punishment? That's the vision of Carla Shalaby, coordinator of social justice initiatives and community internships at the University of Michigan, who advocates for a more humanizing approach to student discipline. Her research focuses on the critical role that students and teachers play in the ongoing struggle for justice. She is the author of the influential book Troublemakers: Lessons in Freedom from Young Children at School (The New Press, 2017) and former director of teacher education programs at Brown University and Wellesley College.

You've said the phrase "classroom management" is loaded. Why, and what should we call it instead?

The role of "classroom manager" has a few problems. One is that a manager is a business-like term. It comes from a corporate mindset, which I would avoid when talking about the work of classrooms. And "managing behaviors" is also a phrase that I'd like to move away from. There are ways to shift that kind of language: We should see the teacher as a "community facilitator," working together with students in a shared space.

We want to break away from a model of classroom management where one person is setting rules and procedures and interventions that squash unpleasant behavior or community conflict. We want community conflict; we want healthy community conflict that is well-supported, well-scaffolded, and is worked through in democratic, community-building kinds of ways. We want the messiness of difficult and challenging behavior. We just want it in the presence of an educator who is well-prepared to facilitate a process of young people working together to heal and solve problems in ways that we would want replicated in the world beyond classrooms.

Teaching love would be world changing. To model something other than kicking a child out or telling them they’re broken.

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Carla Shalaby

In your book, you compare kids who are labeled as problematic or noncompliant to canaries in a coal mine. Can you elaborate on that?

The book sets forth the idea that the kids who are most disruptive are drawing our attention to invisible dangers in our shared classroom space. I think of these kids as the canaries in the coal mine because they are the first to scream of poisons in the air that we may all be breathing in. They point us to harms that the rest of us are able or willing to tolerate more quietly or even silently. As educators, we tend to most appreciate the kids who are compliant. But they may be complying with a set of mistreatments.

Educators typically do not mean to engage in harmful practices, but when kids are demonstrating resistance—however unpleasant or however inappropriate the resistance—they draw our attention to that trigger, to that poison that we may not be able to see. The analogy there is really about helping to draw our focus and attention away from the kid who is suffering, and instead toward the poisons in our shared space that we need to address so that suffering is alleviated—not just for that kid, but perhaps for all kids.

How are so-called "troublemakers" most often misunderstood?

They are seen as bad kids that there is something wrong with. Because as a teacher, I'm caring and I'm trying everything in my power to take care of everybody in this impossible situation, in this impossible job—and this kid is refusing every single thing I'm trying. This student is being difficult and making my life stressful and upsetting the other kids. Of course, it's very easy to understand this kid as a problem. But all of that framing forces us to miss the opportunity to examine whether classrooms themselves are actually neutral and good spaces. When kids are giving us trouble, we have an opportunity to model for all the other kids how to respond to behaviors that are challenging, how to respond to people who are struggling in our community. Every one of those moments is an opportunity to model what love looks like in practice, especially when someone is making their place in the community tricky.

Teaching love would be world changing. To model something other than kicking a child out or telling them they're broken or intervening in every way on their mind and body. It's as if the only possible response we have is, "You either be like the rest of us and do what you're asked or you're out, you no longer have a place in our community."

We as educators have a responsibility but also the exciting potential to think about, What kinds of people are we trying to grow in our classroom spaces? What kind of communities are we trying to grow? What's the world we want and how do we use classrooms as an opportunity to practice that world?

What might a more loving in-the-moment response to a student's outburst look like?

I am imagining a whole set of work that's in place that anticipates those moments, so we have a different set of options when those moments arise. We might say to young people, regardless of their age, at the beginning of the year:

We are 30 people sharing a space together for more than 6 hours a day. None of us have chosen to be here except for me. We are very different; we have different families, we have different values, we have different needs, and we have different beliefs—and here we are thrown together into one room for 180 days. We're going to have to figure out how to share this room together. How to share resources. How to be together in ways that hold each other up. We're going to have to do the really hard work of being a community of people that shows unconditional care and love for every single person that's in here. It's a curriculum like any other that we're going to engage in.

We will have a morning circle every single day. We will work in that morning circle to read books and practice skills and do role-plays to have a safe and loving community. And we will have an end-of-day circle where we debrief and ask one another, What went well today? Where did we fall down? What are some things we need to practice? Who may be suffering? Who's had a tough day? Who's had a great day? It's going to be a part of our work.

Realize that you can't do this alone as one person in a class of 30. Rather than setting yourself up as the authority, set yourself up as a community of people all trying to figure out a very difficult thing together that most adults don't know how to do—and let it be messy. But let it not be a distraction from the rest of your work. Let it be your work. It's not something that's stopping us from getting to the math; it's the one thing that will allow us to get to the math.

Can you talk about the interplay between "hypervisibility" and "invisibility" that your book discusses?

One of the ironic cycles of behavior that takes place in classrooms is that the more I feel unseen or unheard—essentially, invisible—the louder and more visible I make myself. If I am feeling a lack of a sense of belonging, I'm going to go out of my way to demonstrate behaviors that are going to invite my own exclusion.

Educators are so tired, overworked, and underprepared to handle extremely challenging behaviors. The best way to respond to people who are being hypervisible is to try to ignore them, right? That's what we do. People are conflict-avoidant in general, so we try to ignore bad behavior. When that fails because the child ramps it up and up, then we try to make the behavior invisible in some other way. Our immediate response is, let me get rid of this problem as quickly as possible. And if the only explanation you have for the problem is that it's the person, then it's let me get rid of this person as quickly as possible. And that is an understandable response given the constraints that teachers are under. But it is a bad response—not just for that kid, but for all the other kids in your classroom. Exclusion is a really dangerous practice.

The hard work is making space for everyone. And I don't mean in a kumbaya type-of-way. If you as an educator can see your work as part of a really significant societal shift, then you can expect for it to not be easy. You can be excited about bringing kids along in it, because you're raising a generation that is better prepared to respond to harm in ways that do not throw people away.

What do you say to traditionalists who think that more compassionate, less punitive methods of behavioral management have led to a lack of discipline and teacher authority in classrooms?

I don't disagree that we suffer as a society with people having the inability to take responsibility and accountability for their bad actions—it's a problem that we have beyond classrooms and in classrooms. The skill that we ought to hope for, and cultivate at all ages, is the ability to say, "I'm going to hold myself accountable to the harm that I've done and do what I need to do to correct that harm." That's the skill.

Now, do people learn that skill when we use punitive systems? No. We have decades of research both at the level of the prison system and school system that punishment does not actually change behavior. That people are punished, they are removed, they come back, they do the same thing. We've used this as evidence that those people are too messed up to save; it's actually evidence that punishment is a failed response.

There is such a thing as discipline without punishment. To me, that looks like support for teaching people to learn to hold themselves accountable when they have done harm and when that harm is named for them. That's a skill that people can learn, starting when they're young.

What you want to try to help students understand is:

Here's what happened. Here's how you participated in that harm. Here's how and why it was harmful. Here's who it hurt. Here's how it hurt those people. You need to sit and listen to those people tell you how what you've done has been hurtful to them and receive that information humbly. And then we need to think about what is required to make things right, and to restore our relationships.

When I'm thinking about compassionate discipline, I'm not talking about my being compassionate in the way I'm disciplining the child. I'm talking about teaching the child the kind of compassion required to be willing to hold themselves accountable for the harms they're causing through their behaviors.

How can school leaders support the kind of shift you're suggesting?

There are a number of ways. One is to name it as a value and to not be empty as you're naming it as a value. To not participate in traditional, punitive responses by suspending or expelling kids. Part of it is holding a radical kind of inclusion as a core value of the school. And doing that when you run into problems, like if you see a kid who has exhibited an extremely harmful behavior and you're choosing not to suspend them. Because who is going to come for you? The caregivers of the kid who was on the other side of that injustice. I'm not pretending this work is easy, but I'm saying a school leader has to hold the line. That means saying:

Here's how we do things here. We do hold people accountable. We do discipline children. But we don't punish. We use other kinds of strategies to support children in growing the skills and dispositions that they need to discontinue difficult behaviors.

I expect a school leader to hold the line because that's their actual job. It's not in customer service for individual families, but to be concerned about their responsibility to raise a "public," and to raise a public that knows how to be accountable for—and change—harmful behavior. That's something I expect school leaders can choose to do. And, of course, that they support teachers in learning how to do that.

We still need to hold the child accountable, but we also need to acknowledge that the child is not the reason why the environment is not working for them.

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Carla Shalaby

Are you suggesting zero suspensions at the elementary level?

Yes. In an ideal world, you would have classrooms of 10 kids and then you would see problems diminished. Can we all admit that? That if we only had 9 or 10 kids to teach, classroom management wouldn't be as difficult as it is now? That's common sense. But we still like to blame kids when things go wrong. We think it can't possibly be the environment itself.

We need to get away from blaming the kid. We still need to hold the child accountable, but we also need to acknowledge that the child is not the reason why the environment—which is made up of 30 or more people—is not working for them. Because they would likely be fine in a different situation.

None of this is to say that all the responsibility falls to schools. I have a very different imagination for the kind of support that schools would get as public institutions in meeting the whole health needs of kids and families. A very different model is needed. And that's the biggest criticism of any of the work that I do: that I'm asking the teacher to change their behavior like they're the answer to all of the services and material resources that families need, that kids need. No, I'm not asking the teacher to be the solution to all those problems. I'm asking the teacher to stop being an additional one of those problems.

So, no suspensions across preK–12?

Right. Because kids are suspended at extremely high rates, and it does nothing to address root causes of challenging classroom dynamics. It's just as upsetting to me when a 15-year-old is suspended as a 2-year-old, to be honest. Why? Because we haven't done anything before that kid turned 15 to expect them to do anything different.

The part that also bothers me is that when young children see a peer being excluded or suspended, it literally becomes a part of their brain development. When you witness over and over the same kids being yelled at or removed from school, it becomes a part of the hardwiring of your brain to understand those kids as a problem. That to me is so dangerous and so irresponsible for us to be teaching day in and day out. That cannot continue.

If you could offer teachers one piece of advice for dealing with their most challenging student, what would it be?

To decide that you're going to shift away from judgment and toward curiosity about that child. So, you would stop asking, What can I do to fix this kid? and instead ask, What do I actually know about them? What do I need to know? What questions do I have about who they are? What questions do I have about how they feel day in and day out in my classroom space? What can I be curious about? What can I learn? Not, What have I tried and what should I try instead?

Reflect on what you can do to change the dynamic between you and this kid from one where they are a problem that you're trying to solve to one where they are a human being that you're trying to be in relationship and community with.

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