I just read a provocative article in the Hechinger report with which I mostly agree. Cossondra George, a veteran middle school teacher in Newberry, Michigan, wrote “How to keep kids with special needs out of prison and in middle school; Telling students that disabilities neither define nor entitle them.” I cheered when she wrote

Schools need to provide mental health support for students, teaching them coping skills and encouraging them to seek help when they are overwhelmed or frustrated. We need to create more peer-to-peer mentoring opportunities, empowering students to help each other. We need to teach compassion, tolerance and kindness in all classrooms, at all times.

Wow! Her compassion for her students and passion for helping them shines through her words.

used with permission of the ACLU

School to Prison Pipeline: used with permission of the ACLU

Like all of us who work with special needs kids, her long career as a special education teacher places her in the position of child advocate. As such, she is troubled by how many of her students slipped through the cracks and ended up going to prison. She draws our attention to a harmful if well-meaning tendency to “make excuses” for kiddos “simply because they have a disability.” She writes, “we back ourselves into a corner, and teach the child s/he is above simple rules.” This, she reckons, is one of the insidious patterns that feeds the school to prison pipeline.

I am troubled, however, by the dichotomy Ms. George sets forth between “determin[ing] if the behaviors [that got kids in trouble] were directly related to their ‘disability’” on the one hand, and “making excuses for children,” on the other. To paraphrase: “Do the kids have a valid excuse for their behavior, or are we making excuses for them when they really are responsible for their actions?” To further paraphrase, “Should we excuse these kids, or punish them?”

Ms. George is certainly not alone in this “punish or excuse” paradigm. In fact, I would argue that it is the dominant narrative right now in schools and in our greater society. School discipline committees and courts are dedicated to parsing out this dichotomy every day.

Rather than arguing over the details of when to punish and when to excuse, I’d like to throw the entire framework out the window.

The apparent dichotomy can be resolved by making a distinction between child and behavior.

I agree with Ms. George that all people should be held to the same behavioral standards, which frankly means no one gets a blank-check excuse. But I also believe that all children (people, really) should be treated as if they are at heart good. Is this a contradiction? Not at all. We can treat all people as if they are good and still consider certain of their behaviors unacceptable, as long as we separate the child from the behavior.

It is not ok to hit someone, whether you did it because you were angry at them, because you have ADHD or Autism Spectrum Disorder, or because you tripped and fell into them. But does saying the behavior is always unacceptable mean that all those children should be punished? I think we would all agree the answer is no.

But why not? Explicitly, this question leads us to the subject of intention. However, tacitly, it leads us to a usually unspoken issue: the nature of the child.

Let’s look at the situation in which a person trips, falls and hits another kid. Do we punish her? No–we all understand her intention is innocent, the hit accidental. Since the intention is innocent, we judge the child to be innocent, so no punishment. On the other hand, we still do not condone the behavior. We don’t tell her it doesn’t matter that she hit someone. We may ask her to walk indoors or to tie her shoes or to be careful next time. In other words, we analyze the cause of the situation (untied shoelaces), address the cause in order to keep it from happening again (Tie your shoelaces!), and offer the child a means of making reparations (say you’re sorry, go get an icepack).

What about the situation in which a child with an autism spectrum disorder hits someone? We generally understand again that his intentions are not primarily to hurt the other child. Perhaps he doesn’t have the cognitive or inferential skills to fully understand the consequences of hitting. Perhaps he doesn’t have the communicative skills to have solved the problem in any other way. Again, since we judge his intentions as innocent, we judge him as innocent, and therefore we do not punish him. Yet, we still do not condone the behavior. We analyze the cause (sensory overload), address the cause to keep it from happening again (a quiet space to retreat), and offer a means of making reparations.

innocent guilty

Judge the behavior, or judge the child?

What about the situation in which the child with ADHD hits someone? Well, this is where things begin to get more complicated. Maybe we feel that she didn’t really mean to hurt the other student, but that her impaired impulse control got the better of her. Or maybe we feel that she did mean to hurt the other kid for a moment, and we try to decide whether she was in control of lashing out or not. This, I imagine, is the situation that most often leads Ms. George and her colleagues to try to “determine if the behaviors [that got kids in trouble] were directly related to their ‘disability.’” We are not sure about her intentions, nor are we sure what her intentions tell us about her. Our judgment determines our response. Maybe we analyze the cause (low frustration tolerance, poor impulse control), address the cause to keep it from happening again (taking deep breaths, walking away and counting to ten) and offer a way to make reparations. Maybe we simply punish her.

Clearly, intention is the crux of the matter. After all, intention is the difference between involuntary manslaughter, innocent by reason of insanity, and plain old murder (or hitting…).

So, the kid who is angry and has no valid excuse for hitting another kid? We judge that his intention was, in fact, to hurt the other child, and since he has no excuse, we punish him because he needs to be held accountable for his behavior.

Corporal Punishment: An idea whose time has gone

Corporal Punishment: An idea whose time has gone

But look: there is a sleight of hand there. In the cases where we judge the child’s intentions to be innocent, we still hold them responsible for their behavior by analyzing it, addressing it to keep it from happening again, and asking them to make reparations. We aren’t actually excusing anything. But when we judge a person’s intentions to be bad, we suddenly equate holding the person accountable with being punished, even though we know punishment is a terrible deterrent1, 2, both for the original hitter and for the observers of the unacceptable behavior.

So, why do we punish these kiddos? Why do we use punishment only in the cases where we judge a person’s intentions to be bad?

Here is where the tacit assumptions about a person’s core nature come sneaking in. We assume that having bad intentions means the person is bad. We fail to consider that good people sometimes have bad intentions. From there, we assume that bad people deserve punishment, not to prevent them from doing something bad again, but as just and fair exchange for them, well, being bad.

Punishment communicates to a child, “It is not your behavior that is bad, but you yourself, and there is nothing you can do short of suffering that will make things right.”

What if we assumed that all children are good, no matter what their intentions or their behavior? If we separate how we judge and respond to the child from how we judge and respond to the behavior, we can do this without condoning unacceptable behavior. We would start by assuming that, to borrow a phrase from Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), all behaviors communicate, even ones motivated by ill intentions. We would strive, not to judge the innocence or guilt of a person’s intentions and thence of their very nature, but to understand the reason for their unacceptable behavior, in order to address it so it won’t happen again. It would also mean that we would always expect–and allow–a person to make reparations.

In other words, we would always help children learn the skills and strategies to keep from behaving the same way again, and never punish them for being bad.

This is far different from “making excuses” or “determin[ing] that students are not to be held accountable for their actions.” But neither is it sorting out the good people from the bad people. It is, in fact, a whole other paradigm.

It is a paradigm that would help keep kids out of the prison pipeline better than arguing over who gets excused from our behavioral standards and who gets punished for being bad. After all, the one thing we know for sure is that children will rise–or fall–to meet our expectations.

Girl on the swing

Abandon girl Students rise or fall to meet our expectations. Choose wisely.