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Column: Everyone deserves a 'third' chance

Keith Jacobus

By Keith Jacobus, South Washington County Schools superintendent

What? A third chance? I think we may agree people deserve a second chance, but a third? Yes, I would argue that we all deserve a third chance, and maybe more, depending on the situation. We work hard in education to help kids understand that failure is an important, if not necessary aspect of learning. Taking a risk and failing moves us forward. In the science field, an experiment that fails is as important in the overall research as a successful experiment.

As scientific knowledge and evidence becomes more robust regarding adolescent brain development, it becomes more and more important for us to help students learn appropriate behavior, rather than depend on negative incentives or punishments to correct behavior. Kids, (and I would argue adults as well) need chances to try, fail, alter their behavior and try again. Deep and true learning is a process of experimentation and refinement. We need multiple chances to perfect our physical response to the world and our intellectual thoughts and ideas. As educators, our goal is to model appropriate behavior and teach kids how to handle their immature, but powerful emotional system while the rational control center of their brains slowly develop.

In "real life" we do not embrace the importance of failing as a method of learning. On the contrary, we punish people for mistakes or accidents. I want us to be a district of third chances, not just for academic endeavors, but for misbehavior and other elements where our true goal is to teach and learn from our mistakes. In some cases, a true change in behavior may not come from appropriate consequences administered in an isolated situation. The student may need a second or a third chance, but, sometimes, the fear and pressure of what might happen overshadows what we should be doing as part of a learning experience for that child. Our approach to appropriate discipline is never to look the other way or downplay serious events, but to find what will work best versus a one-size-fits-all consequence.

We implement a number of strategies to help kids learn appropriate behavior. In our elementary schools we use a few approaches. One approach is called the "responsive classroom" and is focused on responding to what issues are surfacing in the classroom or on the playground. The day starts with a morning meeting where the class gathers to discusses certain concepts and what the kids are thinking about that morning or what issues surfaced throughout the prior day. The teacher guides the students in how to approach a problem, such as unfair treatment of others. She then models how to address the issue with other students and has the students pair up and practice. There are many other elements to the responsive classroom program, but the focus is on responding appropriately to problems and helping students solve issues without inappropriate behavior.

At the secondary level, we work individually with students to help address inappropriate actions and use restorative practices to solve problems. A restorative practice brings all parties together who were involved in the issue to discuss the problem and how to move forward. The focus is on giving students a chance to fully voice their concerns on how an issue developed and why they reacted the way they did. The process addresses how the issue could have been avoided and what the students could do differently in the future. When facilitated appropriately, the issue is addressed in a way that will ensure it is over without one or both participants feeling angry and seeking to even the score.

In every situation, we need to understand that adolescents' brains do not work like ours, they do not think like adults, and, many times, they do need a third chance to get it right and learn from their mistakes. I want us to be a district of third chances. Keeping our focus on learning, rather than punishment, will serve our kids well. We will continue to work hard so that every child in our district has ample opportunities to learn and grow from their mistakes and, hopefully, go on to become productive, thriving members of our community.