Toward the Restoration of Dignity

Posted on October 31, 2013, in Teaching

For those of you who know Reclaiming Youth International, you know those of us in the organization aren’t fans of corporal punishment. We don’t think hitting, spanking, pinching, yanking and a host of other physical reactions to misbehavior are effective if the intent is to teach youth self-control. Attitudes about corporal punishment may be changing, but slowly. According to Patrik Jonsson in CSMonitor ( the percentage of adults who believe children benefit from the occasional “good, hard spanking” declined from 83 percent to 70 percent between 1986 and 2008.

Over the years I’ve seen the changes in attitudes about corporal punishment in schools. When I was a student years ago, I saw a classmate’s head repeatedly banged up against a chalk board, others had their ears pinched, another slammed up against the locker. One of my friends was beat down a flight of stairs by the teacher while he tried to hang on to the railing. What I saw probably doesn’t approach the level of pain handed out in the name of discipline that took place in our native boarding schools and in some of our religious schools.

Today, when I’m in schools, I see little if any physical pain dished out. But there is another kind of pain that I see frequently. That pain is a psychological pain dispensed in shameful suspension or isolation. In some ways, I think, this pain is just as unproductive and probably more insidious than physical pain because the adults, often following school policy, are often clueless to the pain and ineffectiveness they are perpetuating.

Case in point. I was in a middle school checking in with a student teacher. I saw the principal walking an angry looking kid to the office. I knew the principal and asked if I could sit in on whatever was going to happen. He was OK with that. I quickly introduced myself to the student, shook his hand and asked if he was OK with me sitting in on the office visit. He shrugged his shoulders. “I don’t care”.

The meeting didn’t take long. The principal told the student that with his number of previous rule infractions and what he did today (kicked another student), he was going to be suspended from school and had to spend several days in another setting in another building designed by the school for rule breakers. The principal had already called his mother. Mom couldn’t get away from work so she had called a friend who was willing to pick up the boy. While we waited, the principal told the student that this suspension was for his own good and the good of the school since school had to be kept safe for all. He made sure the boy knew he would be sitting in a chair all day without the opportunity to participate in the art, music and the industrial arts classes he enjoyed so much. The boy hung his head. 

After the boy left, the principal admitted that his hands were tied. The district’s discipline policy dictated his actions. We had this conversation. 

“Were you required to tell the boy all the fun things he would miss?”

“Well, no, but it was important for him to think about how miserable he was going to be for the next few days,” he said.

I said, “This sure created some headaches for, Mom”.

“Yes”, he said, “hopefully Mom will get on his case, too”.

“When he is done with suspension, how are you going to help him reenter the school?” I asked?

“What do you mean? He will just show up in several days and start attending class,” the principal responded with a questioning look.

“Well, my thought is that the first time he sees the boy he kicked, there could be hard feelings if some kind of restoration doesn’t take place? Things could start up all over again.”

“Restoration?” He asked.

I explained. “I think it is important for the boy who got kicked to know he is safe. I suspect, too, that the boy may want to get an apology or at least see or hear some remorse. This needs to happen with a mediator – someone who can support both of them while things get fixed.”

“I wish I would have the time to do this restoration stuff but I’d be spending my whole day, every day, doing that”, he said.

Then, pushing a bit to get him thinking, I asked. “Do you announce to the rest of the students who gets kicked out each day and why? It seems to me that would give you maximum value for the suspension.”

“Oh, no. It isn’t our intent to humiliate this kid; only teach him a lesson. He has a right to his dignity,” he replied.

I thought out loud. “It would be interesting to know how dignified he is feeling right now”.


Now tell us your thoughts!  How could dignity be restored to the offending child and to the offended child?    What would be a way to promote restoration in this instance?  What are the long-term implications of psychological punishment?  Go to our Facebook page and post your thoughts.  Reclaiming Youth International on Facebook   We want to hear from you!

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