A teacher bounces a tennis ball off a high school kid's head to wake him up in class.
A coach uses the word "stupid" to describe a seventh-grade athlete who wants to leave the studs in her newly pierced ears despite a safety rule against wearing jewelry during workouts.
A teacher makes students who don't turn in homework assignments refer to themselves in writing as "losers."
A lot of people see nothing wrong with using punitive measures, including corporal punishment, against students who break rules or show disrespect.
Their thinking goes like this: Some kids just don't listen to reason. They respond only to tough and decisive punishment.
But school psychologists and counselors say there is a line between effective discipline and humiliation – a line that parents should understand and that schools shouldn't cross.
In each of the incidents described above, "I would consider them humiliation," said Roger Herrington, a former teacher and counselor who serves as executive director of human resources for Garland public schools. "That includes anything that depreciates a student, makes them feel unworthy or singles them out for negative attention, something that makes a kid feel like, 'There's something wrong with me.' "
Mr. Herrington and other veteran educators say they believe most teachers like children and are well-trained in effective discipline techniques.
Still, teachers have bad days or fall into bad moods. And, sometimes, they react without thinking when a student misbehaves or clowns around.
"Often, when a kid has misbehaved, one of the smartest things a teacher can do is ask himself, 'How do I want this to turn out?' " said Dr. Scott Poland, director of psychological services for the Cypress-Fairbanks school district near Houston. "A barometer teachers can always use is to ask themselves how they would want their child corrected."
Separating deed, doer
The coach called the girl "stupid" for piercing her ears but still allowed her to participate in afternoon weight training while wearing the new studs – a violation of the rule prohibiting jewelry. But the girl was still unhappy about being called stupid.
"I was just really upset and mad," she said. "For a while, it kinda made me not want to do athletics anymore."
Dr. Poland suggests the coach should have told the girl that she had a choice to make. She could take out the studs or sit out the afternoon workout.
Instead, the coach used an insult and let the girl escape consequences for violating the no-jewelry rule.
"What happened is like a global attack on the girl and really unnecessary," Dr. Poland said. "The coach could have asked the girl how she could have avoided the situation. A basic part of all of this is that we want to separate the deed from the doer."
Dr. Stephen Brock, who trains school psychologists at California State University at Sacramento, warns against punishing students in a way that teaches them to hate things they should love.
Dr. Brock, who taught for 18 years before becoming a school psychologist, remembers a coach who made his students run laps and do push-ups for being late. It became a classic case of ineffective discipline that makes no connection between the bad behavior and the consequences, Dr. Brock said.
"The message to those kids was that exercise is punishment instead of promoting exercise as a way to be healthy," he said. "The focus should have been on how to get the kids more organized so they could get to class on time."
The same is true, he said, of the teacher who made her seventh-graders write "loser sentences" when they failed to do their homework.
While the other students reviewed and graded their assignments in class, the "losers" would have to write and rewrite their mea culpa on a sheet of paper. "Not only is it humiliating," Dr. Brock said, "it punishes kids by making them write. And this is supposed to encourage them to write more?"
'Do things respectfully'
Tim Hayes, a first-year teacher at Little Elm High School in Denton County, had already submitted his resignation by the time he bounced a tennis ball off a sleeping student's head May 8.
The 14-year-old boy was not hurt, and some people might say the incident was amusing and might be justified for an adolescent population that lacks respect for authority.
But John Kelly, a high school psychologist in Commack, N.Y., said effective discipline is not as quick and easy as beaning a teen with a tennis ball.
"Why not nudge the kid on the shoulder and take him out in the hall?" Mr. Kelly said. "Does he need to go to the school nurse? Has he been up until midnight playing video games and you need to call his parents? Does he work until midnight and come to school tired?
"You do things respectfully."
Inevitably, the conversation about what constitutes effective discipline will turn to corporal punishment – usually, spanking with the legendary paddle, the "board of education."
Data compiled by the U.S. Department of Education show a nation divided over corporal punishment. Twenty-seven states have banned it. Texas and 22 other states allow it.
Some academic studies suggest that light spanking can be beneficial when reasoning and nonphysical punishments haven't worked. And a lot of families believe that spanking is beneficial because it enhances respect for authority.
Even so, the American Academy of Pediatrics, American Bar Association, American Medical Association, National Association of School Nurses, National Association of School Psychologists and other prominent groups are against corporal punishment.
Diane Smallwood, an elementary school psychologist in New Jersey, said spanking is never an appropriate discipline. "There are times when a teacher may have to physically restrain a student for safety reasons," she said. "But corporal punishment is, in fact, teaching kids that it's OK to hit other people."
Keep an eye out
So, how can parents who rarely set foot inside their kids' schools keep track of whether teachers are disciplining students or humiliating them? How can they tell if the school environment is benevolent toward kids or tolerant of teachers who use their power over students to no productive end?
Be vigilant, Ms. Smallwood advises. Talk to other parents about their experiences with the principal and teachers. And, she adds, be sensitive to what your child says or doesn't say.
"If you have a youngster who's been coming home for five years all excited about school and then he goes into a new grade and all of a sudden doesn't want to share information about school, you need to make further inquiries about what's happening."
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