Sudbury and Discipline

Discipline has been an issue in schools since the beginning.  How schools will deal with discipline in the future is the topic of this recent article by Atlantic Magazine.

While all educators struggle with how to cope with defiant or disruptive kids, there is no federal legislation and only a patchwork of state laws regulating how two of the most fraught responses—restraint and seclusion—are used with them. As a result, restraint and seclusion are misapplied on what could amount to millions of American schoolchildren each year, sometimes with deadly consequence.

This article goes on to describe a parade of horribles in the history of “restraint and seclusion” practices throughout schools across the country.  Recommendations for addressing this problem include legal regulations and better teacher training.  However these recommendations fail to shift the fundamental dynamics of the classroom.  This leads one to wonder whether the recommendations will fix the underlying problem.  Or whether these recommendations will only exacerbate it.

Sudbury addresses this issue by changing the fundamental dynamics of the relationships among students and staff members.  Sudbury is self-governed.  Students and staff members are equals and individually responsible to each other.  Accountability is a perennial buzzword in education debates.  Sudbury creates an environment where everyone is accountable to everyone else and, most importantly, to themselves.

This accountability is enforced by a Judicial Committee comprised of a randomly selected and rotating group of students and staff members.  This short video gives a glimpse into the workings of the Judicial Committee at the original Sudbury school – Sudbury Valley School:

Sudbury is not so naive as to believe that democracy, freedom, and individual responsibility will cure students of disruptive behavior.  Rather, it believes that dealing with this behavior requires a fundamental shift in the relational dynamics that exist at schools.

Many of the generative forces of disruptive behavior (such as being forced to sit still, pay attention, and do things they’re uninterested in doing) are removed at a Sudbury school.  Although this does not cure the underlying forces (anger, anxiety, fear, envy, etc.) that give rise to disruptive behavior, it removes the normal catalysts and puts responsibility squarely into the hands of the individual students.  Because every Sudbury student is free to spend the day pursuing their own interests, they’re forced to confront the root causes of their destructive behavior.  The normal scapegoats do not exist at a Sudbury school.  If they won’t confront these forces on their own, then the Judicial Committee (i.e. their fellow students and staff members) will hold them accountable.

By creating a fundamental shift in the relational dynamics Sudbury gives its students the opportunity to learn how to control their behavior and get along with others.  A Sudbury student cannot blame the system because Sudbury gives the students nothing to rebel against.  Sudbury students hold each other accountable for their behavior rather than relying on a permanent external authority charged with maintaining discipline who often must resort to the “restraint and seclusion” practices decried in the Atlantic Magazine article.  In this way Sudbury students learn how to resolve disputes, collaborate, listen to different opinions, hold others accountable, become better communicators, identify their triggers, and relate to a wide array of people who hold different opinions and have different backgrounds.


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