From Discipline to Self-Discipline
New Oaks parents may notice some unusual categories when they see their child’s report card: Habit of Respect, Habit of Thoroughness, Habit of Self-Control. And though most schools wouldn’t include these on a report card, some see this as the most important part.
“I always tell our teachers: in the early years, training [in habits] trumps teaching,” said Margee Boswell, Director of Early Education. “Because if you don’t get the training in there, they won’t be able to access this rigorous academic program. The habits are like rails: if you set them down right, they will take you where you want to go. But if you don’t set them down right, bad habits will form by default and they’ll always take you where you don’t want to go.”
It’s an unusual approach to student discipline, and it wasn’t always done this way. Mrs. Boswell recalls a time in the early days of The Oaks when teachers handled behavior problems in much the same way that most classrooms do today: with some kind of chart or visual graphic to display student behavior.
Whether these systems are traditional like a stoplight behavior chart, or more modern like the ClassDojo app, they have the same problem: they allow people in authority to diminish the dignity and the personhood of the children in their care. “If you don’t use habit training,” Mrs. Boswell explains, “you are left with manipulating through rewards and punishments. You are left with the use of fear.”
Early in her career at The Oaks, before habit formation was introduced, Mrs. Boswell had reluctantly adopted one of these types of systems when she faced a particularly willful class. But she quickly realized the drawbacks. “I didn’t really see a difference in behaviors. The same children every day were [disobedient]. And then it came to be an expectation. Anybody who came in my room could see who was obeying, and who was disobeying. It made my heart sick.”
And it wasn’t just the adults who began to define children as “good” or “bad.” One day, one of the “good” students disobeyed, and was devastated. And that was when Mrs. Boswell understood the real problem. “These kids are thinking of themselves as good. That is such a worldly system. That is not the gospel. None of us are good. How are these kids going to get the idea that they desperately need a Savior? That’s what happens when you have a system of works. You don’t realize that you need to be rescued.”
Shortly after, several faculty members attended a classical school conference and discovered Charlotte Mason’s philosophy of habit formation. They learned about habits as a tool to develop and maintain right relationships with God, with self, and with others. When they returned, the faculty did away with all behaviorist systems, and decided on 11 habits that they wanted to develop in their students.
These habits are not only necessary for students to be in right relationship with God, but they are also foundational for relationships with teachers and peers. Students are taught the habit of respect, so that they know how to appropriately address adults. They are taught the habit of responsibility, so that when they break a relationship with a classmate, they know how to confess their sin and repair the relationship.
And to Mrs. Boswell, this is really at the core of The Oaks. “Even if we don’t talk about the gospel, we’re working it out everyday in relationships. What we’re doing in action is living out the gospel, and it all connects with developing these habits. It is the most powerful tool to use with a young child that will affect the course of their education, and their life really.”