APs and Fighting Students
Leadership Insights

Just for APs: Changing a Culture of Fighting

By Terry Wilhelm August 26, 2014

APs and Fighting StudentsAs a new elementary school principal, I found upon my arrival that a significant number of my students, especially boys, had a propensity to solve any disagreement or conflict by fighting. I hit the ground running!

Reactive response to student fights are an energy drain for principals and APs

Having no assistant principal, this meant that I spent at least half of nearly every afternoon mopping up the fights that had taken place at lunch. If I could manage to get out to the cafeteria and the playground at least by the start of the older kids’ lunches, my presence — according to the noon-duty supervisors— had a preventive effect, but I couldn’t always make it, and my presence wasn’t always enough.

The student fights were such a time and energy drain that I had almost nothing left for proactively working on the problem. The suspension rate was high, which concerned me, and a too-typical reaction from parents when I did suspend a student was, “Well, I always tell him, ‘If somebody hits you, hit ‘em back!’” Usually they also demanded to know, “What’d you do to the other kid?” and expressed considerable displeasure when I told them that information about other students was confidential. So home support was not a resource I could count on.

Using the broken record approach to get fighting students to address mistakes, issue apologies

I developed a routine for dealing with fighters. They usually came in pairs. I would address one student by asking, “What was your mistake?” In the beginning, he would typically yell back, “He [hit me, pushed me, was mad-dogging me].” Using the broken record technique, I would repeat my question, saying, “Please don’t yell. I’m only asking what you did right now. Thomas will have a chance to tell me what he did in a minute.”

This process took time and a lot of patience. I did not allow the students to interrupt each other. I required that they refer to each other by first name instead of “he” and did not allow them to point fingers at each other. After we had finally arrived at what each student’s mistake had been, my next question was, “And how will you make this right?”  Between the boys, usually a mutual, sincere apology given and accepted was all that was needed — they would leave my office on friendly terms.

Extensive practice in giving and receiving apologies was also necessary. I had to provide not only the words to use (“Say, ‘Raul, I apologize.'” Then to the other student, “Say ‘Thank you, Joseph, apology accepted,'”), but I also had to prompt the students to make eye contact and “say it like you mean it.” We also practiced appropriate handshakes, which was completely new for most of my students.

Affecting school climate change: ‘All right! I know what my mistake was!’

By now, the students had missed a lot of instructional time after lunch. I quickly realized that the world of school climate problems at my school was much bigger than me, and convened an ad-hoc school climate committee to begin working on our overall campus discipline. One of the items we examined and developed strategies for was how to have students make up this lost time.

Of course, if the fight had resulted in any sort of injury or property damage, a more severe consequence was needed — usually at least a one-day suspension. Secondary principals and APs — especially those at the high school level —will, in most cases, move much more quickly to severe consequences for fights at school, up to and including calling the police.

It took the better part of my first year to begin to see the students internalize new responses. I knew I was beginning to make headway the first time a student flounced into my office, flopped into a chair, crossed his arms, and exclaimed, “All right! I know what my mistake was!” But the best news was, through a multipronged approach, including my one-to-one intensives and other strategies developed through the committee, fights began to diminish.

More strategies on changing the fighting culture in future posts.

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