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A Line in the Sand

Part 1: Drawing the Line

We need to draw a line.

The challenge is sharply focused now as our kids have returned to in-person schooling, many having been fully remote for a year and half, or more.

I am surprised how much our kids have lost during their time in virtual classrooms. I had expected students to be lagging behind “normal” academic achievement benchmarks. I was prepared for that. “It’s okay,” I thought. Some kids will graduate from high school in five years rather than four. But I was not prepared for the huge deficit in social growth. Students returning to 8th grade picked right up where that had left off in 6th grade, right back in the same old fights. If anything, there has been a loss of social skills. As things threaten to get out of hand, as behavioral challenges threaten to further disrupt learning, we need to draw a line in the sand. We need to set limits.

At ICS, we set limits for two reasons — in order to facilitate individual student learning and growth and in order to preserve community.

For the individual learner, we set limits not because we expect the students to comply easily but because we expect them to struggle to comply. The limit, if it is to be an effective tool in learning, must induce struggle. For all young people, the meta-learning involved is more important than the particular task. Learning to learn. Learning about how to deal with limits, self-imposed or externally imposed, is the real life lesson and more important than the particular limitation.

"Forced to Learn"

At a number of points in my academic career, I was taught, “forced to learn”, different formats for bibliographic citation. I managed to use them to write term papers, a doctoral dissertation, and get papers published in scholarly journals. I remember none of them. It doesn’t matter. I could look them up again. Preparing to submit an article to a particular journal, I could follow their format. But I have learned something about form, an extension of an earlier learning to color within the lines.

As a specific skill, a very trivial thing.

A little bigger, I learned to hand in papers on time.

Teachers are continually imposing limits, to establish the stretch goals for students so that they can grow, continually raising the bar, differentiating expectations among students, individualizing not only instruction but also expectations.

Keep on challenging them.

Student goals are supported with rewards and consequences. In schools, the grading system is a major reward system for academic achievement. Discipline policy becomes a major tool in structuring rewards and particularly consequences for student behavior.

Good teaching must present students with continually challenging behavioral goals if they are to grow and continue to grow socially.

Today's Reality

For students struggling with societal limits on aggressive behavior, the stakes are extremely high. Students who do not learn to control violent aggressiveness face a harsh future. No matter how tough they are. No matter how aggressive. Growing up, I was taught, “No matter how tough you are, there is always someone out there who is tougher.” Today’s reality is harsher. On the mean streets of America, there is always someone out there with a gun. Students who do not learn to control their aggression will likely die before adulthood.

Limit setting also serves to preserve community. Schools are fundamentally communities. The community environment and culture contribute to learning or distract from learning. Our schools, our communities, welcome students who have histories of struggling academically and with school behavioral expectations. We expect challenges.

Our tolerance for students who may lag behind their peers either academically or behaviorally is greater than in most schools, but our capacity to tolerate challenging behavior is not unlimited. We still need to preserve the community as a productive learning environment. We cannot tolerate behavior which threatens to undermine the community. We need to set limits, and we need to support these limits with both rewards and consequences.

At the same time, we need to remember that limits and particularly consequences have often served another function in many communities.

On some level, we all struggle with and resent limits. We are all infants under the skin. We all want what we want. We all want it now. Yet we have learned to work with limits. We have learned to stifle our infantile impulses. We have learned to delay gratification, to control our anger. All kinds of stuff.

It’s hard work. And we end up feeling resentful of those who haven’t done the hard work we’ve done. We hate their self-indulgence. We want them punished. After all our suffering from self-deprivation, it’s only fair that they should suffer for their indulgence.


This attitude pervades American culture. Our criminal justice system exists to punish offenders, however much lip service may be paid to rehabilitation.

Punish the bastards.

This energy tends to flow into school discipline policy.

In our commitment to the maxim, “Fair is not equal”, we recognized a different value. We value diversity. We don’t want to be punishing difference.

And yet at the same time, the learning community must be preserved. We need to set limits.

Setting limits is not just saying, “Don’t cross this line.”

I am remembering a joke from my childhood.

I trace a line in the sand with my toe. “Don’t cross that line,” I say.

You cross the line.

I smile. “Okay, now you’re on my side.”

Kid joke. No consequences.

Drawing the line now requires clarity. If you cross the line, there is going to be a consequence.

Kids will test the limits. We need to be prepared. Drawing the line, we are face-to-face with a student and very likely his parents. We are talking to him, we are saying, “If you cross this line, that will happen.”

But it’s more complicated than this.

Face-to-face with one student, we are dealing with a whole class, a whole grade perhaps, maybe even a whole school. Whatever action we commit to will impact not only the student facing us in the moment but other students as well. We are working not only with the challenge of helping a disruptive student learn to manage his negative behavior, to find other ways to get his needs met, we are simultaneously dealing with the other students and their needs for a safe learning environment, for a learning environment relatively free of disruption.

And we are also dealing with systems issues. Our schools were, after all, created with the mission of fully integrating students living with emotional and behavioral challenges. We are welcoming students with histories of “disruptive” behavior. They will bring themselves to school. They will be disruptive. We have built this tension into our schools.

Students are Struggling

It is easier to draw the line in schools without our mission. Simply expel the students who cannot meet our behavioral standard. But our mission demands something else: A way of working with students who haven’t yet mastered school conduct skills.

COVID has aggravated the situation. As we returned from virtual learning, the loss of school conduct skills became immediately apparent.

Some students are struggling more than others.

School leadership faces the challenge of balancing three competing demands —the needs of individual students, the needs of the students as a group, and the systemic demands within which all schools function — those imposed specifically on charter schools, and those relatively unique demands of our school mission.

The way I have found to navigate this complex is to acknowledge our limitations.

I would like to help all students. That is my vow.

But I have come more and more to recognize and accept my limitations of the moment, our limitations.

I would like to be able to help all students but some students I can’t. I, we lack the knowledge, the skills, the wisdom that this child needs. It’s not the child’s fault. It’s not the parents’ fault. I tell parents in this situation, “I’m sorry that we have not been able to help your child. We don’t have the skill. I hope that in two years, if another student arrives with the same needs as your child that by then we will have learned to be more helpful. But right now, your child needs help that we don’t have. I’m sorry.”

Our Commitment

There is a commitment in that statement. There is a vow to keep on building the capacity to be helpful. We owe that to the student and family who we have not been able to help. They have tried to teach us, have provided an opportunity for us to learn. But we haven’t learned enough. At least not yet.

I am reminded of the Sioux prayers of gratitude to the buffalo who has been killed to provide for so many needs, -- food, shelter, clothing. We owe so much to the people we have failed to help. They are our most important teachers.

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