Harvard Educational Review
  1. Learning to Trust

    Transforming Difficult Elementary Classrooms through Developmental Discipline

    By Marilyn Watson, in collaboration with Laura Ecken

    San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2003. 318 pp. $29.00

    In the preface to Learning to Trust, Marilyn Watson explains that years of working with the Child Development Project (CDP) convinced her of the power of Developmental Discipline, CDP’s approach to classroom discipline that is founded on building a trusting teacher-student relationship and a caring classroom environment. For this book, Watson teamed up with teacher Laura Ecken to provide an engaging and nuanced account of Developmental Discipline in action. As described in the introduction, Watson collaborated with Ecken through two years of teaching in a full-inclusion, ungraded primary class in an economically depressed neighborhood of Louisville, Kentucky. Of the eighteen to twenty second- and third-grade students in Ecken’s class each year, about half were African American and most of the others were European American. A high percentage of the students had learning or behavior problems. The reader gets to know Ecken and her students through vignettes that are interspersed throughout the book — detailed descriptions of interactions with students recounted in Ecken’s voice. Drawing on these classroom experiences and on the principles of attachment theory, Watson makes a compelling argument that educators must “drastically redesign our approach to discipline as primarily a process for building supportive relationships and teaching social, emotional, and moral skills and understandings” (p. 183).

    In Part One: Building Trust, Watson focuses on Ecken’s strategies for building a safe and trusting classroom culture. The first chapter illustrates the guiding principles behind Ecken’s strategies for building strong teacher-student relationships. Watson emphasizes the importance of viewing difficult children through the lens of attachment theory, looking past misbehavior to see that every child has a need to belong — a need that may not have been adequately met in the past — and working to find out how to fill that need and motivate each student. In chapter two she discusses ways to help students build positive relationships with each other. Vignettes from the classroom illustrate how Ecken explicitly taught many interpersonal skills that teachers may assume children already know, such as smiling and saying hello to a work partner or forgiving a friend after a conflict. The third chapter in this section, “Building the Community,” details Ecken’s deliberate use of class meetings and community-oriented language to build a sense of group membership and shared values.

    Part Two: Managing the Classroom, will be particularly interesting to educators who wonder how to integrate a relationship-building disciplinary approach with effective, decisive classroom management. Watson begins chapter four by explaining that children have two core psychological needs in addition to the need to belong: the need to be competent and the need to experience autonomy. She shows how many of Ecken’s classroom management decisions were based on meeting children’s need for competence or autonomy. For example, several children with challenging behavior became less disruptive when Ecken found ways to engage them and to address their academic weaknesses so that they felt more competent. Other children were still learning to reconcile their need for adult guidance with their need for autonomy — something that children with secure attachment relationships usually accomplish by age three or four. Ecken found that she was more successful with these students when she gave them a little more time and space to comply with her directions. Watson shows how Ecken’s balance of authority and autonomy changed over the course of the two years as she learned what worked best and as her students grew in competence.

    The fifth and sixth chapters look at different aspects of “Managing Mistakes and Misbehavior,” “Taking a Teaching Stance,” and “When Teaching and Reminding Aren’t Enough.” Watson starts by describing basic classroom management techniques, such as structuring the classroom environment, scaffolding new behavior patterns, and teaching social and emotional skills. She then moves into dealing with more challenging behavior issues, such as deliberate noncompliance, disruptive or violent outbursts, and problems with substitutes. The reader sees how Ecken, in her responses to such behavior in her classroom, strove to ensure that her students felt safe while at the same time approaching misbehavior the way she would academic mistakes: as a teaching opportunity. Watson thus shows that Developmental Discipline does not necessarily provide neat or simple solutions to misbehavior, but is about a fundamental teaching stance oriented toward helping students experience success and learn new behavior patterns over time. Chapter seven reinforces this last point by exploring how Ecken worked for two years, with mixed success, to eliminate conflict-causing competition among her students and foster a spirit of cooperation.

    In Part Three: Putting It All Together, Watson describes how Ecken set out to help her students “construct concepts of themselves as good and capable people, understand that they are in charge of their lives, and be able to exercise control over their behavior when they meet obstacles or temptations” (p. 212). Chapter eight, “Showing Students How to Compose a Life,” introduces practical strategies such as helping students set personal goals, bringing in local community members as models of success and possible careers, and teaching the skill of talking oneself through to better behavior (or “self-talk”). In the final chapter, “Finding the Conditions for Success,” Watson suggests how teachers who want to use Developmental Discipline might find support from colleagues, administrators, parents, and even students themselves.

    While many of the strategies described in the book for teaching social and emotional skills are not new, the rich descriptions of the ups and downs of implementing these strategies in the classroom make this book a useful resource. Especially powerful are the accounts of the times when Ecken was not as successful as she hoped. In one example, after engaging her students in developing a restroom policy, Ecken describes how her attempt to reinforce the value of responsibility fell flat:

    So I said, “I’d like this class to be the kind of class that could go down to use the restroom and come back, not because the teacher is looking but because our school and class will run a lot better. I’d like to think of you as being responsible because you want to learn, and because you want other people to learn, and because you don’t want to get hurt. Does that make sense to you all?” Every single one of them said, “No.”

    These moments add legitimacy by acknowledging that, no matter what approach one uses, teaching is hard and unpredictable work. Watson’s discussion of such vignettes also allows the reader to see the students through a developmental lens and to observe Ecken using the principles of Developmental Discipline to navigate through mistakes as well as successes.

    Throughout the book, Watson makes it clear that Ecken was effective in her approach largely because she was vigilantly conscious of trying to build community and teach interpersonal skills. Thus, most classroom activities had two goals: “to build community and to build her students’ academic skills and motivation” (p. 88). It also seems evident, however, that Ecken was aided in her success by two things that many teachers do not have: expert one-on-one support to turn to in difficult times, and two years to work with the same core group of students. Even though Watson provides appendices with an in-depth explanation of attachment theory and lists of related resources, the work of adopting a Developmental Discipline approach without adequate support could seem daunting to the even the most inspired teacher. Given the time-limited and isolated circumstances in which many public school teachers work, this book ultimately indicates the need for transforming schools, not just classrooms, by adopting schoolwide approaches to community-building and discipline that build students’ social and emotional skills across their elementary school years.

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    Book Notes

    Black in School
    By Shawn A. Ginwright

    Becoming Multicultural Educators
    Edited by Geneva Gay

    A New Look at Black Families
    By Charles Vert Willie and Richard J. Reddick

    Learning to Trust
    By Marilyn Watson, in collaboration with Laura Ecken

    I Am a Pencil
    By Sam Swope