At a signal from his teacher, a boy in a red flannel shirt rises from his seat and walks across the hall to another class at Mead’s Farwell Elementary School.
He waits by the door until a second teacher invites him in. He sits at a desk in the back of the room, then fills out a form about what he did wrong.
The boy is being “processed,” the latest try at curbing school discipline problems.
Fans and foes agree the new system creates quieter, smoother-running classrooms. They disagree on whether it’s good for children.
Dozens of Inland Northwest schools are trying it. Some drop the more clinical term of “behavioral processing” in favor of “think time” or “R&R.;”
“Discipline is probably one of the most pressing issues faced by schools today,” said Ron Nelson, the Eastern Washington University associate professor who designed the system. “It’s also directly connected with academic achievement. If students are not attending and engaged, they’re not learning.”
Nelson estimated more than 100 schools in several states use his system.
“We’re probably doing staff development in five to 10 schools a month. Demand is growing greatly from word of mouth among teachers.”
But the program hit a snag recently at Spokane’s Moran Prairie Elementary where 75 parents signed petitions asking the school to drop the practice.
“Fear and intimidation are a big part of why this program works,” said petition organizer Katie Jones.
Jones collected parent complaints of children sobbing during processing, being processed for “behaving like normal children” and feigning sickness to avoid processing.
In one case, a young boy accidentally heard part of a sex education lesson meant for older students when he showed up in their classroom to fill out a behavior form.
Jones also said the school did a poor job of telling parents about the new discipline.
Jones’ husband, Dr. David Morgan, applied for the open seat on the Spokane School Board. He said his decision to apply and the anti-processing petition are unrelated.
Principal Marilyn Highberg said parents were told in a newsletter about the system. In response to the controversy, she called a meeting for early this week to provide more information.
According to Highberg’s parent survey, less than 10 percent want the program stopped. About 25 percent want more facts.
The principal said the sex education incident was a mistake. Teachers now put a stop sign on their doors if they don’t want students to enter.
EWU’s Nelson called Jones’ stories of children humiliated by processing “outlandish, unprovable and demeaning to teachers.”
“If Katie (Jones) would go in and look at it closely, she’d see it’s a very kind and patient response to behavior,” Nelson said.
Moran Prairie parent volunteer Sarah Beyersdorf likes the program, although she doesn’t like the term “processing.”
“I notice a real change in classroom behavior, hallway behavior, behavior in the lunchroom,” said Beyersdorf, who spends several hours a week in the school.
The program grew from teachers’ frustrations with some students’ disrespect, goofing off and foul language, Beyersdorf said.
“I think ‘processing’ is an awful term,” she said. “It’s good, old-fashioned time out.”
Nelson said the system is based on ideas parents have used for ages: sending children to “time out,” then asking later if they know what they did wrong and what they can do to improve.
Both strategies are backed by solid research, he said.
The core of the system is a one-page form the child fills out. It asks several questions: What was your behavior? What do you need to do when you go back to your classroom? Will you be able to do it?
Younger children answer by circling cartoon drawings labeled “not working,” “disrespectful,” “bad language,” “fighting” and “not following directions.” Older children fill in blanks on a different form without cartoons.
The child returns the form to the teacher, who checks it. If accurate, the teacher welcomes the child back to class. If not, the teacher sends the child away to try again.
Ideally, the whole procedure takes about 10 minutes. Nelson advises teachers to be matter-of-fact and unemotional, giving as little attention as possible to the child who misbehaves.
The word “processing,” which Nelson took from computer technology, is on its way out. The term added to parents’ confusion, he said.
At Hayden Lake Elementary in Idaho, teachers call processing “R&R;,” which stands for “reflect and resolve.” In recent teacher training sessions, Nelson called the system “think time.”
“Processing sounds like something you do to cheese,” joked Farwell Elementary Principal Margaret Walters.
Whatever it’s called, the system led to remarkable changes at her school in Mead School District, Walters said. The school began using it last fall.
“It’s like teaching in the ‘50s again,” Walters said.
One teacher found she could teach 10 minutes more per 30-minute session using time formerly spent on discipline. The principal sees fewer students sent to her office.
“Teachers are feeling much less stress and less exhaustion at the end of the day,” Walters said. “That’s why they’ll never go back.”
Kaye Linda Johnson, a Farwell parent and volunteer, said her second-grade son was sent to another classroom several times, including once for rocking in his chair and once for laughing at the sound of a tuba in a marching band outside.
The fact his teacher sent him out for small disruptions doesn’t bother her. “Parents need to understand why they’re catching the little things,” she said.
Catching little things is a key to the program’s success, said Kathy Kuntz, principal of Hayden Lake Elementary.
In contrast, other popular school discipline systems don’t lead to consequences until after a series of warnings, Kuntz said. Teachers might mark three checks on the board beside a student’s name before taking away recess time, for example.
“The kids would think, ‘I’ve got three chances here.’ By the time they pushed it to that point, the teacher would be agitated and it was bothering the other children too.”
Teachers still use gentle reminders and eye contact before they send a child out of class, Kuntz said.
Nelson, a former high school teacher, developed the program while working with Spokane’s Whitman and Regal elementary schools during a three-year, $400,000 project paid for with federal taxpayer money.
In an unpublished research paper, Nelson compared Whitman and Regal with two Spokane schools that did not use his ideas. Expulsions and suspensions decreased at Whitman and Regal and rose at the two control schools.
Mike Crabtree, principal at Regal Elementary, said fairness is one of its strengths.
“Instead of one child receiving three warnings and another child five or six warnings, every child gets one warning,” he said.
The system works best when teachers get together to analyze common problems and decide on rules, Nelson said.
At Farwell Elementary, for example, teachers agreed to ban hats worn inside. At Hayden Lake Elementary, staff sets standards for students moving between the school’s many buildings.
University of Oregon researchers will study the program’s impact on classrooms, Nelson said. Until that independent review, Spokane parents and teachers must make their own judgments.
Cheryl Hattrup, parent of four Farwell Elementary children, described what she sees as a school volunteer.
“The kids are a lot quieter. They know they can’t get away with anything anymore. I see a lot more learning, more time spent on teaching than on dealing with every trouble.”
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