Traveling New Roads Together

Traveling New Roads Together

Last month, I had the pleasure of training a group of college students preparing to be camp counselors. My main purpose in the training was to equip them to support kids from hard places. Many of the camps they would be doing would take them into areas of the city where behavioral issues and lack of family support would be likely prevalent.

During the Q&A session at the end, questions kept coming up about how they should handle discipline. One counselor asked, “Can we make the kids do pushups if they are misbehaving or late?”. This is a common form of discipline within sports or camps, and I have never liked it. Personally, I think it can be pretty degrading to a kid to give penance in the form of a pushup – but despite how much I despise the approach, I answered – “Yes.”

But I had a caveat.

“As long as you do the pushups with them.”

The group laughed, but the point was taken. When you make kids do pushups for misbehaving, is any connection made? Or are we further cementing our authority and power? However, when we do pushups with the kids, connection is created and there is some sense of shared responsibility.

Because if the kids are constantly misbehaving or late – does the fault completely lay on their shoulders? Or is it a power play for the adult to dish out the discipline without also taking some of the blame? 

As helpers of students, we often forget the power of vulnerability and connection when it comes to how we correct. It is much easier to point out the mistakes with our kids. It’s much harder to admit our culpability.

This concept rang true to me as I read through a recent study on teenagers and cell phone use commissioned by Common Sense Media. The main takeaway of the study showed that 1 in 3 teenagers take their cell phones to bed and report checking their phones multiple times overnight.

Simply put, this is a horrifying trend. Numerous studies have confirmed the “blue light” emitted by screens should be eliminated at least 30 minutes before bed, and cell phone be removed from the bedroom for any chance of quality sleep. Why on earth would teenagers do this to themselves?

Well, because we do. The same study reports 61% of adults check their phone within 30 minutes of going to bed. Simply put – we adults have developed some nasty habits with our devices and our kids are watching.

An interesting thought that came out of the same study showed the number of teenagers who think their parents are spending way too much time on the phone went up by 11%. But teenagers own assessment of how much time they spent on devices was more muted. While they thought their parents spend way too much time on the phone, they felt like their time was just about right.

This study highlighted how teenagers can develop really unhealthy habits and suffer loss of sleep and health as a result. As an adult it would be easy to just tell a student to not take their phone to bed. If so, prepare for a fight.

It’s like this in so many aspects of our parenting and mentoring of students. We are quick to point out their issues and tell them where they should change, but even with the lightest of scrutiny, we as adults aren’t doing much better. 

This isn’t just about cell phones and sleep. It’s how we deal with our stress. It’s how we self-medicate. It’s about our anger. It’s our discontent. Do we not realize our kids are watching us, even if they seem aloof?

This offers opportunity for connection. For example, if you know your teenager is taking their phone to bed, you likely are as well. Instead of laying down the law, why not share your own struggle and create a plan to deal with it together?

Or maybe you struggle with anger or outbursts. Maybe acknowledge that with your kid? Apologize? Even ask for help?

When we choose connection with our teenagers, we build relationship. It’s the harder road, but it is one that acknowledges our humanity as well as respects where our teenager is developmentally. 

We cannot ask our teenagers to travel roads we do not presently travel. By choosing vulnerability and connection, we choose to travel those roads together.

Chris Robey

Chris Robey


Chris has worked with teens from a variety of backgrounds for over a decade. He has a desire to help teenagers make good choices while also giving their families tools to communicate more effectively as choices are made.

How We Deal with “The Bad Kids” Part 3

How We Deal with “The Bad Kids” Part 3

It is hard to imagine a disciplinary process in a school, church, or any other organization dealing with students that isn’t anchored by the threat of punitive action. For so many who are parents, it is hard to think about losing the trump card of grounding or punishment as a motivator for following the rules. As I stated in my original post, most adults in positions of authority tend to go with the most pragmatic approach to discipline, not really thinking about the long-term implications.

As adults, we tend to believe we have the best solution to the problem at hand. If a student steals property from another student, it is up to us to make sure the thief is punished appropriately and the other student gets their stuff back. We want to administer whatever form of justice we feel is swift, sure, and will insure that we can clean it up and move on. Our sense of justice is confirmed often when someone pays the price.

What if there was another way? Could there possibly be a disciplinary model promoting the long-term welfare of the student, accountability to agreed upon standards of classroom conduct, as well as respecting the developmental and social needs of adolescent?

Perhaps a model to consider is that of Restorative Discipline, an off-shoot of the Restorative Justice movement. Restorative Discipline (RD) is a systematic approach to dealing with student infractions and disciplinary issues. Central to this philosophy is the idea of “circling” students in various ways throughout the school day. Teachers are trained in the circling model as the first place students will interact with this form of accountability.

A circle is pretty simple. Basically it is a process where students create literal circles around certain parts of the day, or because of an issue, and no one person (including the teacher) is more important than the other. Everyone has the chance to talk and voice their concerns or opinions. Typically there is something called a “talking piece” (an agreed upon object that, when held indicates a student’s turn to talk) and a few other simple elements. In the classroom, circling is used typically at the first of the week, mid-week, and as a means to close out the week. Sometimes classroom circles occupy the beginning of every day as a means of checking in.

The bedrock of any circle (or any group for that matter) is agreed upon norms, rules, or expectations. In other words, what does the group need to be safe, functional, and an effective learning environment. The entire circle will create a group of norms and those will be posted somewhere in the classroom.

For example, if one of the norms is, “We will respect the right of students to learn,” a common student infraction like being disruptive in class or talking out of turn is dealt with on the basis of the norm and the group instead of outsourcing the discipline to the principal. The group is circled and the problem is addressed with dialogue, respect, and accountability.

There are some more specific circling techniques for more serious infractions that include administration, the accused, and the victim (when appropriate). These cases have a framework for conversation that helps both sides understand what happened, find a way to resolve the conflict, and figure out how to make things right moving forward. Often, family circles can be included by involving parents in the process.

What is so unique about this disciplinary approach is the goal of keeping as many students on their main campus as possible and creating a learning environment based upon respect, restoration, and problem solving.

There are so many aspects to this model, and I am still trying to get my head around how this would work on the many campuses I am on each week. Some of it seems idealistic, but often idealism is a better place to start than the alternative. This approach has been around a long time in theory, but only recently began to be implemented by educators. There are some pilot schools working on this approach in our state of Texas, but the vast majority are still working on the old punitive system.

Do yourself a favor and do some reading on this model. See if it is something you can push for in your community. If you are a youth pastor, consider making this your model of discipline among your students.

For a thorough list of resources, check out the Institute for Restorative Justice and Restorative Dialogue. Let us know what you think!

Chris Robey, Teen Life’s Program Director, has worked with teens for over a decade and strives to help students see the best in themselves.
How We Deal with “The Bad Kids” Part 2

How We Deal with “The Bad Kids” Part 2

Note to Reader: We have great respect for the administrators who have to make difficult decisions within their school districts. I am writing this blog post because I have personally seen great changes made among the school districts in our area addressing issues with “the bad kids”. 

Recently I spoke with a counselor at one of our alternative (disciplinary) schools. She told me a story about a young man who recently got sent back to his campus after trying to get re-instated at a new campus in his district (his family had recently moved). It turns out the principal at this school was this young man’s principal in 7th grade, and essentially, the principal denied this young man’s entry onto his campus because of the student’s bad behavior in middle school.

Let that sink in. After several years, this principal held a grudge against this student and denied access to traditional public education, forcing the student to go to alternative placement. Because of past sins, this student has been “marked” so to speak and will struggle to have access to the same levels of education as his peers.

This isn’t an isolated story. A big part of my group work is in alternative schools, and this story rises to the surface over and over. Most of the kids I work with got in trouble in elementary and middle school, and they developed a reputation. They were put on “the list” and feel singled out or watched by administrators. From a very young age, they were labeled “the bad kid”.

These are powerful messages, even if they might be earned in some way. They trickle down into the hearts of students who are told over and over how bad they are. Or, the message is sent that they are not wanted when they are repeatedly suspended or sent to alternative schools. After a while, they just accept they are “bad” and start playing the part.

Unfortunately, the statistics are starting to bear this idea out along racial and intellectual lines. Students of color or who are in the minority are much more likely to be suspended or expelled, especially if they have some kind of learning disability. One of our local major school districts suspended over half of the African American males in the district while over 25% of all students in the district were suspended or third partied. And, this is a huge district!

Studies have shown that students who are suspended or expelled are much more likely to drop out of school or repeat a grade. In fact, a study of all 7th graders in Texas over a three year period showed 31% of students who were suspended repeated a grade, compared to only 5% who didn’t get suspended.

For many reading this, it might seem like there is a little bit of blaming going on here. If the students just followed the rules, they wouldn’t be in trouble, right? Well, yes and no. When you look back thirty or forty years, school suspensions were very low. It was really hard to get suspended from school in the 70’s. But several factors, including Colombine in 1997 changed all of that. With Colombine, the idea of “Zero Tolerance” and putting police officers on school campuses became the norm. When the idea of “Zero Tolerance” takes root in an administration, many misbehaviors can fall under that pretense.

For those reading this post who might struggle with this concept, understand that things have changed dramatically on school campuses over the last 40 years. But our students are the ones suffering the long term consequences of “Zero Tolerance” and over suspending schools.

There is much more to say on this. In the meantime, if you want more context for the statistics I mentioned above, I encourage you to spend some time looking at these articles which will point you towards growing data showing these troubling trends.

The School to Prison Pipeline, explained – this is a great primer for this topic. Lot’s of links out to articles and research.

Out of school and off-track (An in-depth study out of UCLA on school suspensions)

I believe in my last post I promised some solutions, but I felt like discussing the problem a little further, while providing some context through research would help. In my next post, I plan to talk a little bit about what is being done to address some of these issues and some positive ways forward. Let us know what you think!

Chris Robey, Teen Life’s Program Director, has worked with teens for over a decade and strives to help students see the best in themselves.