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Opinion & Essays - Dec, 1997 Issue #49

by: Lon Woodbury 

“More rules means more structure” is a very common belief, especially by educators it seems. But in practice, those institutions with the most rules frequently are not only rigid, but at the same time are sometimes unstructured and even chaotic, even when the rules are vigorously enforced. This is largely because a multitude of rules can itself introduce complexity and inconsistency into a school, just the opposite of what is understood as structure. A good example is the United States Tax Code. Nothing has more rules, regulations and guidelines than the Internal Revenue Service. And, recent revelations have shown an agency with such a maze of rules that no one is in control. Also, it shows little sense of consistency or appropriateness or fairness. 

I see structure as a function of consequences. A school has a tight structure when consequences for the student are immediate, appropriate and consistent. In other words, cause and effect are closely related. On the other hand, a school has a weak structure when consequences are delayed or nonexistence, inappropriate, and/or inconsistent. In other words, cause and effect are loosely related, and a sharp, manipulative student has a good chance of getting away with underground behavior. It is almost universally accepted that tight structure is necessary for the student who has emotional/behavioral problems. This is because a student with those problems is usually immature to the extent he/she has little or no internal structure or self-discipline. Structure must usually be imposed from without to help him/her internalize it and learn self-discipline. Mainstream schools and programs do not need so tight a structure because their students already have a maturity (and thus internal structure) appropriate for their age. 

How is structure created? Rules to set down standards are one way of doing that of course. It is the first thing most people think of because we have a very strong value in this country of “Rule by law.” This has been especially true in the last few decades as statutory law has moved into areas that used to be determined by common law, custom and/or responsibilities taken on by individuals and communities. A school relying heavily on rules to establish structure is just a reflection of how contemporary society is trying to structure itself. The thinking in schools and programs is, the rules are written down in advance, they are explained to all students, and when a student breaks the rules, it can be assumed the rule-breaking was done willingly and knowingly, so punishment is dealt out accordingly. The weakness of relying on rules, in an emotional growth school especially, is that it is impossible for all eventualities to be anticipated. Students can nit-pick rules to death. “I wasn’t running in the hall, I was just walking fast, so I didn’t break any rule.” A sharp student who knows how to manipulate can tie administrators into knots, and can create a power struggle and a divided student body based on accusations of arbitrary decisions. Plus, many of the students honestly do not know that rules apply to them, which is one of the reasons they were sent to that kind of school in the first place. 

Another way of creating structure I’ve seen work in schools is through Agreements. This might sound like rules at first glance, but there are some subtle but important differences. First, it moves the decision making authority away from a rule making body attempting to anticipate eventualities, and places more of it on the people at the scene of the specific behavior. Another difference is agreements are usually more general, and less tied to specific details. Basing school supervision on agreements, the person on the scene can take into account body language, voice tone, reactions of other people present, and a host of factors a rule making body cannot be aware of. It does require staff, however, to have common sense, and will work only if all the staff are confident in their personal philosophy of right and wrong which is consistent with the culture and standards of the school. 

The difference between rules and agreements can perhaps be explained by an example. Lets take the almost universal prohibition of drugs in schools. A student is on the sundeck with a group of other students and picks up a stick and pretends its a joint. He pretends to take a deep drag, and perhaps passes the stick around to others to join in. He stumbles around as if high, all to the merriment of the other students. Part of what he is doing is making a statement. He is stating drugs are fun and desirable, and the school hasn’t changed his mind about that. He is also testing or challenging the school’s authority to see if staff can discern what he is actually doing. If busted, he has the defense he was just having fun, he broke no rules because he had no drugs, and can claim the school is overreacting and being unreasonable if it tries to punish him. Some of the other students might agree with him, especially those who would like to undermine authority. The whole thing can easily become a power struggle. The staff that comes on that scene might even let it go on the basis that it is a gray area in the rules. That attitude, unfortunately, would encourage even more challenging behavior. 

The same scene in a successful school based on an agreement of “No Drugs” will be handled very differently. The student’s defense of not doing anything wrong because he didn’t actually have any drugs would be countered with something like, “You are out of agreement because you are bringing the drug culture onto campus. This is covered by the agreement because that behavior makes it unsafe for everyone.” A consequence might be the student being featured in a group session devoted to how he is damaging his life by hanging onto a drug mentality. Defending being a “druggie” is much more difficult than arguing for an interpretation of a rule. 

Another tool to creating structure is found in those alternative schools which rely on “positive peer pressure” to help the school operate smoothly. When a school has established a positive peer pressure, the longer term students teach and demand of the newer students behaviors which help the school community operate in harmony. Positive peer pressure requires a high degree of “self-rule” on the part of students, especially the older students. When established in longer term students, with the support of a strong and knowledgeable staff, positive peer pressure can be vital in producing a very tight structure, even without a lot of “rules.”

So again, rules are not structure! There are several ways to create a tight structure and rules are one of the ways, but not necessarily the best one. We need to see structure as being how closely consequences follow specific behaviors. Then, develop the tools on the basis of how consistent, appropriate and fair the consequences (both positive and negative) are in actual practice, rather than just pile on more rules every time a problem develops. 

Copyright © 1997, Woodbury Reports, Inc. (This article may be reproduced without prior approval if the copyright notice and proper publication and author attribution accompanies the copy.)

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