Head Notes - Dr. Barbara Gereboff's Blog

Thursday
Feb192015

Aligning School and Home Behavior

We’ve all been in settings where we are horrified by how another parent ignored what appears to us to be outrageous behavior.  The challenge of a pluralistic community like ours, or any school for that matter, is that the standards and methods among families can be widely variable, and consequently, the expectations for what the school should or shouldn’t do can also vary widely.

The first time your child misbehaves, how do you decide how to redirect - or recalculate in GPS lingo?  Most of us learned our parenting skills from our own parents – either following their lead or reacting to it and doing the opposite.  Many of us have read whatever the “Dr. Spock” of our generation was - hoping to gain insight from these wise psychologists.  

How nice it would be if there were a GPS for childrearing.

Educators and psychologists who study childhood behavior and the methods for shaping it note that there are broadly three different approaches to behavior that have dominated schools and homes in the United States: autocratic, permissive and positive (the latter sometimes referred to as “cooperative” or “responsive”).  Generally, society swings between the two poles – autocratic and positive. Permissive grew in prominence in the sixties and is still found in various subcommunities.

Many of us were reared with autocratic methods.  The statement, “I expect you to do this because I’m your parent (or teacher)” belongs to the lexicon of autocratic parenting.  So does the idea of punishment for poor behavior. While honoring one’s parents is a virtue, behaving solely in response to someone in authority fosters blind obedience.  Research has shown too that punishment that is unconnected to the misbehavior teaches some to avoid the behavior and many others to sneak, cheat and hide to avoid punishment.

The idea of “let the child decide what s/he wants to do when s/he wants to” belongs to permissive methods, as does the idea that we just need to talk out our issues with adults and children on equal footing in the discussion. Many children reared in permissive homes struggle with commitment and decision-making, for it can become immobilizing to make any decision when all sides of a story are equally compelling.

The positive discipline model which has been around since the 1930’s has grown in prominence among most educators and it is the one that is in effect at Wornick. It is embedded in The Responsive Classroom program that we use. Central tenants of positive discipline are that all children want “to belong” to their community, misbehavior is generally the result of a mistaken goal about how “to belong” and discipline teaches through logical consequences. The entire system claims to develop an inner locus of control. One of the main proponents of this method, Jane Nelson, writes that a positive/responsive method:

  1. Helps children feel a sense of connection. (Belonging and significance)
  2. Is mutually respectful and encouraging. (Kind and firm at the same time)
  3. Is effective long-term. (Considers what the child is thinking, feeling, learning, and deciding about himself and his world – and what to do in the future to survive or to thrive = inner control)
  4. Teaches important social and life skills. (Respect, concern for others, problem solving, and cooperation as well as the skills to contribute to the home, school or larger community)
  5. Invites children to discover how capable they are. (Encourages the constructive use of personal power and autonomy)

There are many other distinctions between the two methods – distinctions between what is understood to be the source of misbehavior and the difference between the treatment of misbehaviors that effect others versus those that only effect the offender.

Autocratic discipline belongs in settings where the educational goal is compliance; positive discipline of the responsive classroom belongs to schools that promote critical thinking. The former works when the authority figure is present; the latter helps children develop inner control so that their behavior is suitable regardless of the setting. I welcome future opportunities for us to engage in thoughtful, respectful dialogue so that we can be sure that we are speaking the same language and that our values are aligned.  In the meantime, use our staff as your GPS when you have a question about behavior.  We’re happy “to recalculate” for you.

Shabbat Shalom,
Dr. G.

Friday
Feb132015

A Place for Everyone at the Table

A few years ago, a young woman who had graduated from my former Day School in Los Angeles wrote a heartfelt article that appeared in the Jewish press. Her article was in response to the fact that she felt that her voice was being shut out of the conversations about Israel in the United States. She wrote about her love of Israel, the Zionist household where she was reared, and the lessons about Israel taught in her school. During her college years, she developed a more nuanced understanding of Israel. She learned that Israel wasn’t perfect, and as she began to express this, she was often dismissed by others and inappropriately labeled. She still loved Israel because she had internalized all the lessons from her past. Her call to action to the reader was to stop dismissing voices that held nuanced understandings. 

I was reminded of this piece when I heard Rabbi Donniel Hartman speak this week. He is a staunch Zionist, an Orthodox Rabbi, an intellectual whose message is the same as this young woman’s. He laments the tragedy of the polarization of both the North American Jewish Community as well as Israeli society around socio-political positions regarding the very definition of Israel as a Jewish state. This takes the form of either silencing careful conversation and effective action or, worst, by labeling “the other” position as “the enemy” and by proposing policies that are highly undemocratic.

Rabbi Hartman claims that in both societies the traditional, visceral disdain for one another around religious positions has receded, and has been replaced by disdain for opposing positions regarding Israel. I would argue that polarization with disdain for “the other” still remains too in the arena of religious positions. From time to time, it rears its head in our pluralistic community.

Our work in our school community is clear. We must make sure that children learn that we are a community with a wide range of beliefs and practices, and that respect for each other, inspite of strongly held opposing positions, is of paramount importance. We sing in the morning about how we’re all created “btzelem elokim” (in the image of G-d), and the meaning of this is that the diginity of each human being is a fundamental value. As Rabbi Hartman noted: “When you exclude conversations of whole groups, you plant the seeds of destruction of the community.” Let’s hope that at least within our own community, we allow everyone’s voice to be heard with respect and that we keep our minds open for possibilities.

Shabbat shalom,
Dr. G.

Thursday
Feb052015

Setting Education Standards

Let’s play a little guessing game. Can you tell what sort of school the following set of goals from a recent accreditation workplan came?

Graduates:

  1. must own their knowledge
  2. hone their skills and capacities particularly in writing
  3. cultivate social responsibility – ethical and reasoning skills
  4. develop adaptive learning – take what they learn in one arena and apply it in another

Teachers:

  1. will change from content coverage to units of study connected to above learning goals
  2. will incorporate more experiential learning within their classes

Are these the product of an elementary, middle or high school? Independent or Public school? Is it a progressive school or a more traditional school? What decade is it from?

The answer is that these are the goals set in the accreditation workplan for Stanford this past year. The Vice-Provost for Undergraduate Education at Stanford University, Harry J. Elam, Jr. presented these at a gathering of California Heads of Independent Schools last weekend. He opened his remarks by saying that Stanford is actually reworking their learning and teaching goals to better accommodate our students coming from independent schools where these sorts of goals are distinguishing features.

He wasn’t saying this so we could pat ourselves on the back – he was referencing recent research that understands that 21st Century education needs to move into these areas. He was also pointing out that for so very long university education has been focused on disciplinary content knowledge, and that professors did not typically see their roles as that of engaging students to own and to create knowledge. Above all, professors and universities did not really think they had a direct role in cultivating social responsibility as part of their core curricula. These new goals for the University are generating new required courses across disciplines about ethical decision making, creative thinking, and engaging diversity, and they are creating new systems for encouraging faculty to think about their teaching in a new way.

As I sat among several hundred Heads of Independent schools, we all were somewhat surprised by this information. As we have all worked so conscientiously over the past decade to realign our schools with 21st Century skills, we never thought that venerable institutions like Stanford, Harvard and MIT were engaged in internal soul searching about best practices in teaching. We always assumed that they set the bar for us, not that we were forcing them to rethink how they were approaching education. It was indeed a sobering moment when we realized that education from cradle to grave is a dynamic process responding to ever new research about how learning occurs. All education institutions are on this journey together.

Shabbat Shalom,
Dr. G.

Wednesday
Jan282015

Money Matters for Children

How much time and thought do you devote to teaching your kids about money? I don’t mean about how to calculate change – that’s relatively straightforward. I mean about the value of money – about how to connect it to personal values, how to understand what it takes to earn it, and how to manage it.

These questions were inspired by an interesting article in the New York Times last week. The author talked about growing up in a hard-luck area of Los Angeles, where her parents were often “broke” and the fear of a car or an appliance breaking down loomed over their lives. She is a graduate of Stanford leading a comfortable life now. She recently took her four children to visit her old neighborhood. She mused about their different reactions to this visit, and asked “what if insulating my children turns out to be a mistake? What if I am depriving them of the very fuel that drove me in my own life?...it was more than a choice to offer my children a different life; it was the whole point of the struggle...”

Living a comfortable life and learning to earn and to struggle to pay for things are not mutually exclusive. Parents, particularly middle and upper class ones, need to understand this and then carefully think about how to teach these concepts in developmentally appropriate ways throughout a child’s life. Laura Shin addressed this a couple of years ago in Forbes. I especially like her idea of creating three jars in a child’s room – labeled sharing, saving and spending. Each time a child receives a gift of money or an allowance, s/he must divide the money equally among the three jars. Young children need this sort of visual representation of these concepts.

My Dad, a well-educated business man and Bank President, had some forward thinking ways to teach me and my sisters about value. In my senior year of high school, he accompanied me to the bank to open my first checking account. While there, he deposited in that account a quarter of the money that he had put aside for my college education – a considerable sum of money. The rest was deposited in my savings account. When we got home, he handed me my first semester tuition bill and had me pay it. I watched my new account diminish significantly in that moment.

From that day on, I was responsible for managing my spending and my tuition payments. I received an occasional boost in my account around special occasions. That account that my Dad set up had just enough for my private college tuition and some spending money. But I decided that I needed to work part time throughout college so that I could have things that I wanted that were not possible given my Dad’s “spending money” calculations. Years later, I realized that was the point. Some of our relatives chided my father for “making” me work throughout college. He never argued with them, nor asked me not to work – he just smiled his knowing smile.

My husband and I have taught our children the same lessons that my father taught me, and as I now watch all three of my adult children manage their finances responsibly, I too can smile that knowing smile. It is my fervent wish that every parent takes these lessons to heart and is able one day to sit back and smile too.

Shabbat Shalom,
Dr. G.

Friday
Jan232015

Collective Punishment

I’m pretty sure that we have had those childrearing moments, when we yell to our feuding siblings in the back of the car, “That’s it, we’re not going to the movie...we’re going straight home now!” One child inevitably says “But, I didn’t do anything.” Do all of them deserve the same consequence? This question becomes magnified in a classroom, and, ever more, in a society.

The Torah reading for this week (Exodus 10:1-13:16), recounting the narrative that is central to Passover, has been the source of many discussions and commentaries around the concepts of collective punishment and retributive justice. The text describes the last three plagues and the Exodus from Egypt. I have always found this a very disturbing text. Why should all the Egyptians suffer the consequences of a tyrannical Pharoah. Were they all complicit? It is interesting to see how Jewish tradition handles these sorts of difficult moments in a text. And, though, an ancient text, the Torah and its commentaries can be a spring board for our own contemporary conversations about some of the very same sorts of behaviors and reactions to them.

Early commentators tried to understand and to give justifications for the killing of the first born of people who were not connected to Pharaoh. They said that the ordinary people also oppressed the Jewish slaves and thus were deserving of the severe punishment. One of our first graders mused this week “I wonder if the ordinary Egyptians were mad at Pharoah for causing all these problems?” A great question – one I haven’t seen in the commentaries – but one that shows a mature ability to think of different perspectives and feelings.

The Rabbis who created the Passover seder as we know it, made sure to add the ritual of removing a drop of wine from our glasses as we name each plague. The rationale behind this ritual is that we should not rejoice in the loss of lives (even of our enemies). A modern writer, has restated the problem as one of collective responsibility rather than of collective punishment. She notes, perhaps the only way to understand the initial phrase about killing the innocent with the powerful is that everyone is ultimately responsible for the oppression of others – some by their actions (Pharoah) and others by their silence.

I am still troubled by the notion of collective punishment. The fact that the commentaries grapple with this in every generation tells me that this idea of collective punishment runs counter to deeply held Jewish values about the dignity of all human life, and I’m inspired by the fact that Judaism allows for this sort of struggle with texts and nuanced understanding of the human condition.

At the end of the day, when my kids were arguing in the back of the car, my better self knew that I should never give the same consequence to the child who appeared to be the victim as to the child who seemed to be the perpetrator...and yet there were many times when I said “you are all misbehaving – you for starting the argument, and you for continuing it and escalating.” It was rare that the third would just sit quietly. Indeed, they all may have been responsible for the seeming misbehavior of one child. We just needed to turn around the car and all suffer that consequence. Are times when collective punishment is justified?

Shabbat Shalom,
Dr. G.