Push Out or Pull In?

I kicked students out of class. And I issued demerits, assigned after-school detentions, and made office referrals. But the longer I taught, the less I used these forms of punishment—partly because I became more skilled in preventing problems, but mostly because they didn’t work well.

After all, while I sometimes felt great relief at seeing the backsides of students headed to the office, it didn’t last. Students pushed out of class eventually came back—and usually with even greater resentment and more alienation from me, from other students, and from learning.

So I found my mindset shifting. Instead of pushing the bad kids out, I tried to pull them in, to restore them. The bad things they did—calling someone stupid, kicking over a chair, throwing a punch, destroying property—these wrongs damaged relationships.

For good to come again to victims and to offenders and to the classroom culture, there needs to be more than punishment. There needs to be restoration. And demerits and suspensions alone don’t restore.

This doesn’t mean there should never be a walk down the hall to the office. Sometimes space is needed for cooling tempers and keeping the classroom safe. And school rules should carry through all classrooms. But, you can give, even consequences, with one of two purposes: to push out or to pull in.

Here are some pulling-in strategies I used:

  • Consider the Context:

What frustration triggered the offense—feelings of inadequacy or fear, harassment or exclusion by other students, an outside-class event?

  • Talk:

With offenders: “What happened in there?” I’d ask. “How do you feel about it? How do you think others feel about it?” When I asked these questions with sincere interest, I almost always discovered important details. Sometimes, for example, the distinction between offender and victim became not quite so clear. After I listened to their sides, students were often more willing to talk about how they could repair the harm they had caused.

With victims:  I’d ask them how they were hurt, what needs they had as a result, and what they saw as a way to resolve the situation.

With both victims and offenders: I tried to help them take the perspective of the other, to put the offense in context, to think about how to re-connect.

After this, I tried to talk with them together. This was an opportunity to acknowledge harm and to express remorse and understanding. Not all these conversations worked, but often they did, and occasionally, new friendships formed.

  • Plan Re-entry:

Earning the way back into the good graces of a class is daunting. But successful re-entry often results in lasting good behavior. Students usually need help, and I often appealed to two sets of people to give it.

Parents: “This is what happened,” I’d tell parents. “And this is what I hope happens next.” And then we’d put into place an accountability structure—often regular reporting from me and reinforcement at home.

Peers: I’d ask a couple of students from the class to work with the offender. Most students rose to the challenge—giving daily affirmations, including the offender in groups, and calming them before they escalated.

Does pulling in instead of pushing out solve all discipline problems? Of course, not. But pulling in builds community by teaching conflict resolution

4 Replies to “Push Out or Pull In?”

  1. So good, Phyllis. This works in the home too. I’m learning these same lessons with grandkid squabbles! Fourteen kids from 4-17 yr. sometimes seems like an old- fashioned one room school!


  2. Such wise advice and ideas for rebuilding connections. We need this in churches too – and in our communities. Thanks for breaking down the parts of reconciliation into manageable pieces! I smiled at your one-room-school analogy, Jewel. 🙂


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