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with Barbara Coloroso

By Laura Bickle
Photo: Lorella Zanetti

A profile photo of Barbara Coloroso. Barbara is smiling.

How would a deeply caring person handle it? That question is at the core of Barbara Coloroso’s approach to discipline and ethics. A former teacher and author of several books, including Kids are worth it!; The Bully, The Bullied, and The Bystander and Just Because It’s Not Wrong Doesn’t Make It Right, Coloroso is trained in sociology, Special Education, theology and philosophy. She has helped numerous school boards develop consistent and respectful discipline plans and has spoken at conferences around the world over her four-decade career. She has also taught a multi-day institute for teachers in Toronto for the past 30 years. Here Coloroso shares how to apply her philosophy in the classroom.

Where do schools struggle with their discipline policies?

In understanding the difference between punishment and discipline. Punishment is something we do to students and it causes more conflict. It only appears to be effective in the moment. Discipline is something we do with students: its goal is a resourceful, compassionate, resilient human being (the student) who takes full responsibility for their behaviour.

What's your approach to dealing with misbehaviour in schools?

There are three levels of misbehaviour: mistakes, mischief and mayhem — and each need to be dealt with differently. A mistake is walking down the hall with an open marker and unintentionally writing on the wall. Mischief is drawing a tick-tack-toe game on the wall. Mayhem (which includes bullying and intent to do harm) is writing something inappropriate and/or cruel about a classmate.

Students need to own it, fix it, learn from it and move on. When the mistake, mischief or mayhem creates serious harm — restitution, resolution and reconciliation need to be folded into the process. Students need to be involved in rectifying the situation. It gives them agency and shows them that what they do matters.

How do teachers generally react to this approach?

Teachers say it’s so much easier when they have the framework — If students misbehave, this is what we do. The challenge is understanding the difference between the three levels, and then acting accordingly while involving the student in the process.

How can educators encourage good behaviour?

They need to stroke the deed not the child by showing students the impact of their good behaviour. For instance, Thank you for inviting William to the table. I can see how happy it made him to feel included. There are three things that we need to give to our learners: encouragement, feedback and deep caring — all of which teach them to care deeply about others. They don’t have to like everyone in the class but they do have to care about them and honour them. And teachers need to walk the talk — if you say it, do it.