School to Prison Pipeline - How teachers and schools may contribute to it


They focus too much on getting students to behave instead of identifying and addressing the underlying causes of behavior they don't like.

I understand the reason. It’s easier to teach if they all “behave”, and their behavior is what ends up being most disruptive to educating them and other students. That’s also what parents and society at large focus on as well. Behavior is seen simply as a problem to be eliminated, or at least curtailed. Teachers and schools largely rely on behavioral management for this reason. When it doesn’t work, as it often doesn’t, they simply do more of the same.


But behavior is just the tip of the iceberg. There’s so much more going on beneath the surface in kids’ minds, and that’s the important stuff. Too often the way teachers and schools approach behavior they don’t like is like a doctor who doesn’t take a patient’s history, doesn’t consider symptoms, and simply prescribes the same treatment for every patient that comes to him/her. Then, if that doesn’t work, simply prescribes more of the same treatment, more often, and continues to even as the patient gets worse before his/her eyes.


Behavior is a symptom. It’s a symptom of dysfunctional thoughts and feelings kids have about themselves, others, life and what’s happened to them – thoughts and feelings they need help with. Most kids either can’t, or won’t verbalize what’s going on inside them for a variety of reasons, but what doesn’t come out in words often comes out in their behavior – behavior teachers and schools won’t like.


Behavioral management often can temporarily eliminate symptoms, but it often ends up being like OTC medications for a cold. The symptoms return because the treatment does nothing about the underlying cause of those symptoms. In the case of a cold, a virus infecting our tissues. In the case of behavior we don’t like, the thoughts and feelings a student has. Behavioral management or modification doesn’t teach kids how to better manage their thoughts and feelings. It just gives them a reason to stop behaving the way they do. But sometimes the treatment can interact with the cause in some unexpected way, and the patient just gets worse. Both OTC medications and behavioral consequences can have untoward effects.


There’s nothing wrong with setting limits – kids need them. There’s also nothing wrong with using consequences to encourage kids to honor those limits. Consequences should always be related, reasonable and given in a respectful way. Too often they are not because done in anger, and with the mistaken goal of power and control, or even revenge. Consequenes given in anger are really punishment, and troublesome students can sense it.


We need to do more about helping kids with the underlying causes of the behavior we don’t like – their thoughts and feelings about themselves, others, life and what has or is happening to them. The reason this is so important can be summed up in three simple statements.

1)      Thoughts cause feelings, not events

2)      A person’s behavior will follow his/her emotions toward his/her life events

3)      Attitude is always the father of behavior


Teachers are not prepared while in college to recognize or deal with psycho-emotional challenges that often arise from kids having rough starts in life, and that give rise to behavioral challenges. 

Many have never had to deal with such challenges in their own lives. I had one young math teacher tell me “I took AP classes while I was in high school, so I never had any experiences with kids like this”. She was referring to kids I had in my “Tool Time” groups that were in her math classes. She also said no one ever prepared her for dealing with such kids in college, and instead required her to take all kinds of higher level math classes she’ll never need or use to teach algebra to such students. College preparation for teaching is based too much on a somewhat faulty premise that the more you know about your subject matter, and the better lesson plans you come up with, the better teacher you’ll make. There’s some truth to that, and that’s how college actually works, but there’s much more to being an effective teacher at the lower levels where other issues so often impact what transpires in a classroom.


My experience as an adjunct professor for a Chicago area university consortium suggests that school districts are actually going in the wrong direction with regard to teacher training. I taught graduate classes for teachers based on what I call The Mental and Emotional Tool Kit for Life. One class was entitled “A Tool Kit for Teachers”, another “Troubleshooting with Troublesome Students”. They basically gave teachers “tools” to better understand what they often had to deal with in some students, and more effectively deal with it. I taught them exactly what they needed to know to preserve their own mental health, and help their struggling and troublesome students with theirs. Then one fall semester all my classes got cancelled for lack of enrollment. It turned out that districts stopped approving, giving credit for, and reimbursing for graduate classes, unless they were in a teacher’s subject matter area. They went in the exact opposite direct that they should have gone regarding teacher training.


In the absence of professional training, most teachers fall back on how they were parented more than anything else when they have to deal with behavioral challenges in students. Many have an authoritarian mindset from that experience, and even wrongly believe that such a mindset is what’s called for in dealing with misbehaving students. Such a mindset is often even encouraged by the school and colleagues, so no matter how much evidence there is that it’s not working, and even making matters worse, teachers often cling to it, and even double down on it.

When I was a kid, I often heard “Children should be seen and not heard”. Just imagine operating from that belief in a classroom. The beliefs we have about the way things should be can create a much bigger gap between our expectations and reality. That’s the recipe for generating more emotion than is helpful or necessary. The bigger the difference between our expectations and reality, the more emotion we’ll generate.  Many beliefs teachers bring from their own parenting, i.e. “Children should respect adults”,  can make behavior they don’t like into an issue of respect, and cause them to view it as disrespectful, and take it personally. That’s needlessly inflammatory and will cause a teacher to overreact emotionally and behaviorally. 


Too often anger is a big part of conflicts between teachers, administrators, and chronically troublesome students.

Anger is emotional nitroglycerin. That’s the way nature intended it to be. It’s the fight half of our fight or flight response to deal with threats to our lives. The problem is that human beings can and often do imagine threats where they don’t exist or magnify ones that do out of proportion to reality by the way they choose to look at things before, while and after things happen. It’s why we’ve always seen needless abuse of children, both verbally, and even physically. Nothing those children who were abused did every rose to the level of being a real threat to their parent’s or other adult’s life. The adults in their lives just raise what they did to that level by the way they chose to look at things.

Anger gives anyone a false sense of power, righteousness, permission and protection. It’s why so many troublesome students use it like a drug. But it’s also why teachers and administrators will often not see how ineffective what they do with chronic troublesome students actually is. It also precludes them from seeing or considering trying a different, less punitive approach.


As noted above, the greater the difference between our expectations and reality, the more emotion we’ll generate. If we simply want, prefer or desire students do what we expect of them, we’ll be frustrated, irritated or annoyed if and when they don’t. We'll have energy to move (e-motion) but not so much that we react or overreact. We're still relatively free to respond in the best possible way. However, if we think they need to do what we expect of them, that it’s a necessity, and demand that they do, we’ll get angry instead if or when they don’t. That makes us more reactive, and less response-able. There's two ways to make something you don't like worse, do nothing and overreact to it. Most teachers and parents usually do the latter with misbehaving children and teens. Our anger is not a product of what they do so much as where we set our THINK thermostats before, during and after kids do things, including what we expect of them in the first place.

This is how Zero Tolerance policies create more conflicts between teachers and students. By demanding that students never violate rules, you’ll find more to get upset about, and get more upset than is helpful or necessary about any violations.

We have every right to want students to cooperate and do what we ask of them. That’s our right as human beings. However, when we start to demand that they do, we set the stage for needless emotion and conflict. For those troublesome students who usually have the mistaken goals of power and control, and revenge, demanding obedience is an invitation for them to misbehave to satisfy their mistaken goals. Getting angry can even reinforce behavior we don’t like. They typically believe that they make us mad, and most teachers believe the same thing, so these students get a false sense of power and control over us, and a sense of getting even with us when we get visibly angry.  


This also contributes to mismanaging troublesome students. Alfred Adler said, “A problem is a misbehavior that gets mismanaged”. Misbehaviors get mismanaged because of how teachers choose to look at things. 

We always try to make sense out of things we don’t like. Too often, teachers are quick to jump to conclusions, and assign a theory for behavior that they don’t like that is not accurate. For example: 

a. It’s the parents fault 
b. Parents let them get away with too much 
c. They think they can do whatever they want 
d. They have no shame 


The way we define a problem dictates solutions. If our theory about why a child behaves the way they do is inaccurate, it can cause us to take actions that not only won’t help, but can make matters worse. For example, if your theory is that their misbehavior is the result of their parents letting them get away with too much, then it seems logical to really crack down on students. Very often the opposite is really true – parents have been overbearing, too strict, and even abusive. If your theory is that students misbehave because they have no shame, shaming them seems like the logical thing to do. With most kids the real problem is that they have too much shame from a lifetime of believing and being told they don’t live up to expectations. Shaming them is like giving alcohol to an alcoholic to cure his drinking problem. When we get locked into such theories, it precludes us from considering other theories that might be more helpful.


Troubled and troublesome students typically have had a lifetime of being told, and believing that they don’t live up to expectations. This often starts very early in their lives, long before they ever come to school. Believing you don’t live up to others expectations is the recipe for feeling shame. Shame will play out as anxiety and/or anger. If you believe you haven’t lived up to others expectations in the past, it’s easier to imagine you won’t in the future and generate anxiety. Everyday events start to seem like bigger threats than they are or needed to be, including adult comments or actions. Kids can literally plug into their fight or flight responses on a regular basis. I like to say you get either turtles or rattlesnakes. Some kids learn to suck into their shells in self-defense. Others learn to coil, rattle, and even strike out at those they see as threatening. The turtles are frustrating to try to teach, but the rattlesnakes are the ones teachers will make the most mistakes with.


Teachers are more likely to take offense at the coiling and rattling, rather than see it as largely defensive, as it is with real rattlers as well. What teachers say and do then just becomes one more way of telling a troubled and troublesome student that he/she isn’t living up to others expectations one more time. Too often what teachers say and do ends up feeling like poking a real rattler with a stick to such students. They often respond the way rattlers do – they strike out at what they see as the threat, often with a lot of venom. When real rattlers strike out, people often take offense and want to kill them in response. Unfortunately, teachers and administrators often react the same way with student “rattlers”.


I was taught “Look at your past, but don’t stare at it”. That’s exactly what troubled and troublesome students end up doing, staring at their past, and often recreating it because they do. Typical discipline interventions usually encourage students to stare at their pasts even more. The message is often something to the effect of “Look at what you’ve done, AGAIN”. Too often it ends up being an example of “rubbing their noses in it”. No one likes having their nose rubbed in the mess they’ve made.


Discipline should always be private. We’re very careful to not violate student privacy regarding so many other things, but when it comes to discipline, teachers and schools too often go public.

Sometimes this is done simply because teachers lose their composure and make themselves angry. When you’re angry, anything you do seems right because of the false sense of power, righteousness, permission and protection anger gives anyone. However, students are often disciplined publicly to make an example of them to other students – to send a message to other students that certain types of behavior won’t be tolerated, and will be dealt with harshly and quickly. For example, having police handcuff a student and walk him out during a passing period. 

This can backfire in a multitude of ways. It can make what a teacher or school does to a student an even bigger threat to that student. Many troubled and troublesome students already feel a deep sense of estrangement and rejection, feelings they often had most of their lives. Publicly disciplining them only exacerbates such feelings. It can make the misbehaving child a “pariah” with other students, many of whom really want to get along with teachers and be seen as “good”. Their subsequent reactions usually just exacerbate a troubled and troublesome student’s sense of rejection and estrangement. He/she often then becomes more of a turtle or rattlesnake, at time sucking deeper into his/her shell, or striking out more often, and in nastier ways.  


If what I’ve said makes any sense to you, it should come as no surprise why we see the many things we do in schools, including shootings. It should come as no surprise either that we also contribute to any school to prison pipeline that exists – or even create one.


“The problems of man are man-made. They can be solved by man”. That’s what John F. Kennedy once said. Whatever problems teachers and schools have with some students can ultimately be traced back to what others have said and done to them, and how they have understandably chosen to look at what others have. What others have said and done to them ultimately stemmed from how those others chose to look at what such students did, and how they made themselves feel because of how they chose to look at things. Thoughts cause feelings, and attitude is always the father of behavior.


That's what Dr. Alex Molnar believes contribute to chronic problems situations with students. Teachers and schools develop frozen perceptions about troubled and troublesome students. These get embedded in memories and school records, and get passed along to others either by word of mouth or school records. Of course, students also develop frozen perceptions about teachers, school, other students and themselves. When teachers and schools have chronic problems with troublesomes students, Dr. Molnar contends that these "frozen" perceptions are always a big part of the problem.

I like to talk about people having cognitive, emotional and behavioral "ruts" from practicing and rehearsing thoughts, feelings and actions. "Frozen" perceptions are really just cognitive "ruts". "Ruts" make thoughts, feelings and actions automatic. That can be a good thing sometimes, but in chronic problem situations with troubled and troublesome students they can cause all involved to keep receating the past. 

As JFK suggested, these problems with some students can be solved. However, Albert Einstein once said, “You can’t solve a problem with the same mind that created it”.


One of my rules as a teacher was always, “If you think, feel, say and do what others always have with a troubled and troublesome student, you’ll get what they have always gotten. So do something different”.


I invite you to read about the “Tool Time” approach I developed and use with the most troubled and troublesome students. I was taught and have always believed that the further into discipline we get, the more positive it should become. The "Tool Time" approach is a way to make discipline more positive. As I noted earlier, I was taught and also have always believed "Look at your past, but don't stare at it". The "Tool Time" approach is about students future, not their past. It's another reason why I think it works so well. You can read about this approach in an article on this site, or at my other website for The Mental and Emotional Tool Kit for Life.


Mindset is key to doing something different and better with troubled and troublesome students. I invite you to read about mindsets I’ve found helpful.