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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Fair Isn’t Equal: Seven Classroom Tips

Dr. Richard Curwin

Director, Graduate program in behavior disorder, David Yellin College

In last month's post, I mentioned that there are two skills that separate great teachers from good ones. I explained that the first skill is the ability to reframe student behavior, to see it in new ways. Today I want to discuss the second skill: knowing how to treat students fairly by not treating them the same. Allen Mendler and I introduced the idea that fair isn't equal to the education community in 1988 in the first edition of Discipline With Dignity (an updated, more comprehensive explanation with examples is provided in the current edition). Since then, nearly all of the educators who have used our model have seen remarkable results when resolving a wide range of behavior issues. In short, treating students in a fair -- but not equal -- way works.

If you ask students what are the most important qualities they like in teachers, one of the universally top-mentioned is fairness. Teachers and schools strive to be fair and build programs and polices based on this value.

But what is fair? Many define it as treating everyone the same, but I would argue that doing so is the most unfair way to treat students. Students are not the same. They have different motivations for their choices, different needs, different causes for misbehavior and different goals. I think this is good, because wouldn't the world be very boring if we were all the same?

The most glaring example of the misunderstanding between fair and equal is in progressive consequence organization. The first violation results in the same consequence for all; the second infraction, more severe, is still the same for all. This continues throughout the sequence. A vast majority of schools and classes use this model. There is great danger in using progressive consequence schemes. No one would go to a doctor who treats all headaches the same, since the cause for one may be allergies and the other a tumor. Identical treatment for two students who don't do homework for different reasons -- one who has to help at the family business after school, and one who watches too much television -- is no different than that crazy doctor with the single cure for all headaches.

Does treating students fairly take more time? Not nearly as much as unsuccessful solutions to behavior problems that continue to eat classroom time in five-to-fifteen minute chunks over the course of a year.

Here’s how to put this concept into practice.

1. Everyone has the same rules.

Exceptions may be made for unusual circumstances, but positive social interaction is pretty much the same for everyone.

2. Consequences are flexible.

When a rule is violated, the teacher can choose from a large set of possible consequences. These consequences work best when spelled out in advance to students, administrators and parents. There is no defined order or progression. Pick the one that works best or the one you think will be effective from your knowledge of the student. Often it is very effective to give a student a choice from the list along with a promise to improve or the possibility of losing the privilege of choosing.

3. Equal isn't always fair.

Remember that using progressive consequences does not mean that you are treating students the same. How many times a student is run through the progression depends on who is caught and how the consequence is delivered. The following is a highly exaggerated example, but even when a teacher is far subtler, the students pick up on it.

"Johnny, please stop interrupting. This is your warning. Thank you."

As opposed to:

"Bessie, you little weasel. How many times do I have to tell you not to interrupt? I'm really tired of it. You get one more warning before I do something far more serious."

Both students were treated equally because they both got a warning, but was it fair?

4. Teach the concept of fair vs. equal to your class before implementing it.

With homework, class discussion or in-class activity, ask students for examples from the home, school or society where it is very fair and good to treat people differently. Then give a few examples of how you intend to be fair but not equal. Students K-12 can understand and accept this when explained in a way that matches their capabilities.

5. Follow the basic tenets of great discipline.

Keep communication between you and the student who violated the rule private unless it is impossible to do so.

6. Be willing to discuss your strategy with students.

When students complain that "it’s not fair" if their consequence is different from another student's, remind them that:

  • Fair isn't equal.
  • Talking about others is gossip and you won't do it. Add that you will not talk about them to others.
  • Ask them what would be fair. When they answer, follow with words like, "Okay -- if you can guarantee that when I follow your suggestion, you will stop (or start doing . . .). If your idea works, that will be great, but if it doesn't, then we'll do it my way." This gives students the responsibility to change while understanding what is at stake.

7. Be willing to discuss your strategy with parents.

If a parent complains about unfairness, racism or that you dislike their child, try a conversation that includes the following points:

  • "I'm really glad you are here. It's great to work with caring parents who have the same goal as me: to help Juan improve."
  • "I'd like to hear your ideas about this situation. You know Juan better than I do, so tell me what works at home." (This is a great equalizer question.)
  • "I can see why you might be concerned, but together we can make things better for Juan."
  • "I’m willing to change my decision to one you think will work better, but if it fails, then let's give my original idea a try."
  • Here is the best way to conclude the discussion: "I really care about Juan, and I'm willing to do whatever it takes to help him improve his behavior. But there is one thing I will never do, no matter what. I will never treat him like everyone else. Your child deserves a lot better than that."

Being truly fair is harder and requires more work in the short run that just treating everyone the same. In the long run, it saves time and is more effective. And when it comes to treating everyone the same, every child deserves a lot better than that.

Dr. Richard Curwin

Director, Graduate program in behavior disorder, David Yellin College
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