Rules and Discipline within the Co-op Group Setting

In discussing the many different aspects of co-op group activities, I have so far avoided an in-depth examination of discipline within the group setting. While I have touched upon the ability of homeschooling co-op groups to offer opportunities to expand children’s individual talents and interests, I have only hinted at any disciplinary restrictions for the group itself. This, then, is a further consideration of group dynamics and some of the “hot spots” that I have seen arise in multiple homeschool group situations. I am also including certain specific episodes that resulted in group discipline: rules that ultimately restricted everyone’s behavior, for better or worse.

“DO’s” — The Types of Rules to Consider Implementing
Time Segments? 1-hour classes? 2-hour classes? If your group is large enough to offer more than one class on co-op day, you probably need to consider the ideal length for those classes. When just a few families get together once-a-whenever for a project, the only limiting factor may be naptime for the youngest members. If you are attempting to schedule co-op classes for multiple age groups involving dozens of children, you may need more structure.

Hall Monitors? If you are blessed with a large facility (church or community center) where your students can spread out into multiple classrooms, you may be faced with occasionally wandering children. Students new to the facility may get lost or confused or need help finding their classroom, the restroom, or Mom (if she is occupied in another classroom). In such a case, an extra parent assigned to direct foot-traffic can be a wonderful blessing to the little lost soul who thought she knew the way to the restroom.

Children in Parking Lots? This is another aspect of the “wandering child” issue — Abbie left something important in the car and runs out to retrieve it, not expecting another family to be arriving late, and they are not expecting any children to be dashing through the parking lot. We all try to keep hold of our youngsters in large lots (such as Wal-Mart), but we tend to relax around our small group of friends. To prevent tragedy from sneaking up on us, small children should be discouraged from leaving the facility unless accompanied by an older sibling or parent. Any family attempting to move their vehicle should walk completely around it first — you may never discover a child sitting on the ground behind your car, but you might find Benji’s jacket or Charlie’s notebook before driving off without them.

Discipline? A Moms’ Meeting is the place to discuss and decide together how discipline should be administered during co-op classes, so that all parents are aware of what the agreed-upon procedure is. My personal recommendation is that the parent should deal with the offender for any significant problems; the teacher or other adult witness may need to describe the situation to the parent first, if the parent was not present during the incident, then leave the parent and child alone to work it out according to their family’s rules. [more on this below]

Gender Bias? Classes can be gender-specific without being gender-restricted. We once offered our teens a class in cake decorating, something many of the girls were interested in learning. One of the boys from the group also signed up to take the class; he had had some experience at home and was not intimidated by being the only male in the room. He also had the last laugh on the other boys who tried to tease him for taking the “girl class” — the boys did not have an alternative class that day and instead were recruited for an assortment of heavy-duty cleaning projects around the building.

Age Bias? An older student can effectively sit in on a class meant for a slightly younger age group, but a younger student may not work out as well in a class intended for older students. Accelerated learners may have an advantage in academics, but usually have not achieved the maturity to go with it. Our group had many such debates about “David” who was advanced several years in his schoolwork and wanted to attend all the group activities designed for the students in his grade level. However, the other students at that level were high school teenagers, and David was quite a few years younger. Although he (and his parents) believed he was the intellectual equal of the teens, he was not equipped emotionally, physically, or in any other way to participate in the teens’ social events. The high school classes also were not a good “fit” for him: even though he could handle algebra and read high school literature, he could not discuss many of the broader topics (such as current events, the stock market, or vocational options) that the other high school students were interested in studying. His emotional/philosophical level was still in elementary school, where his age placed him.

“DON’T’s” — The Types of Rules to Avoid
Public Schoolism: If your members are primarily unschooling types, definitely stay far away from any rules with a public school flavor, such as walking in precise lines to change classes. I have stated in previous articles that homeschooling brings out the individual differences in our children and that public school-ism emphasizes the one-size-fits-all approach. Avoid zero-tolerance-type universal rules for governing single incidents; instead, take the initiative to speak to the one at fault.

Dictatorships: Allowing or relying on only one person to coordinate all activities endangers your group’s unity and must be avoided at all costs — your desire is to have a homeschooling cooperative group, not to become the flying monkey minions of the Wicked Witch of the West. (Forgive my bias — not all people who lead groups fall into the control-freak category; I have just been stung too many times.) Discuss your concerns together as a group and make sure all opinions are expressed, polling each member individually, if necessary. Secret ballots and suggestion boxes will not encourage the timid member to speak up as much as a friendly, non-threatening atmosphere will. Welcome all opinions, whether agreeing or dissenting, and discuss the pro and con sides of all options. In the end, even the most adamant dissenter can feel good about a group decision if she feels her concerns have been listened to in the process.

Do Not Overrule Parental Authority: Assume that parents know what is best for their own children. Assume that parents already have their own set of rules for governing their family. Realize that what you do not allow in your family may be perfectly acceptable in another family, and what you find acceptable behavior may be extremely offensive to others. Realize that families will usually try to respect the wishes of the group, even if those rules do not mirror their family’s preferences.

To Discipline or Not to Discipline — What Happened & How I Viewed It
The following stories involve students of middle school and high school age, mostly because that is the time when children are more likely to exert their own opinions. Rebellion from good kids is often channeled toward creative outlets, rather than becoming destructive or damaging. What one adult considers “rebellion,” another adult may consider “self-control” — based on their point of reference. Over the years, I have witnessed some remarkably creative rule-breaking in otherwise well-behaved children, who had simply been pushed to their personal breaking points. These accounts are true; all names have been changed to protect the guilty. Learn from them what you can, realizing that no amount of planning can cover all contingencies, but it is better to speak to one individual about a problem than to try to legislate major rules that affect everyone else and still do not get through to the offending person.

Erica sneaked up behind Frank before class began and pinched a pressure point on his neck. Thinking it was his friend George, Frank whipped his arm around and caught George in a headlock — only George was really Erica. Not a problem, thought Frank, Erica is quite a tomboy herself and usually wins in a good wrestling match with her brothers, so Frank followed through with his takedown. Erica was delighted with the opportunity to wrestle someone besides her brothers and gave it her all. An unsuspecting adult happened to witness this seconds-long encounter, walking in just as Frank maneuvered Erica toward the edge of the stage they were wrestling on in an attempt to frighten her into letting up, since her strength and experience were greater than Frank had anticipated. Mrs. Conclusion Jumper immediately lived up to her name, shreiking for the “fight” to stop, and sending everyone within earshot into panic mode. Frank was severely reprimanded for exhibiting such behavior toward one of the girls, and Erica was never faulted for starting it all. Frank’s mother was finally summoned from another room when Frank protested that he was merely defending himself against an attack from behind. Frank and Erica’s parents saw through the whole scene immediately and concluded that nothing extraordinary had taken place, with the exception of Mrs. Conclusion Jumper’s reaction. Frank and Erica remained good friends, both knowing the incident was all in fun. Frank and Erica’s parents remained good friends as well, also knowing that their children were responding in ways that would not have been given a second glance at home. Mrs. Conclusion Jumper is still upset to this day. [Although no other wrestling matches ever took place, there was soon a rule forbidding any and all rough-housing, especially on the stage area.]

Harold and Ivan had opted not to participate in a class they found uninteresting. Finding themselves without a room to sit in, since all rooms were being utilized for classes, Harold and Ivan decided to wait on an entryway staircase until class was over. Then Harold and Ivan found a football. Being athletic teenage boys, they saw nothing wrong with carefully tossing the ball back and forth across the entryway, from one set of stairs to the other. Enter Mrs. Conclusion Jumper. Again. What had been a fun way of passing their time suddenly became a big deal — at least to Mrs. CJ. No windows had been broken, no property had been damaged, no small children had ever been put in danger, and no parents had objected to Harold and Ivan’s attempt to bypass boredom. Except Mrs. Conclusion Jumper. [Next rule on the ever-expanding list: no ball-throwing unless as part of a gym class.]

Kip was the lone wolf of his church group, seldom joining in with activities, and preferring his own company to anyone else’s. I was illustrating a Sunday School lesson on Jesus calming the storm and had arranged the chairs into a long, narrow boat-shape and had the students choose their own seats as the “disciples.” Kip sat in the very back row. By himself. As I read the story and set the mood with a sound effects tape of thunder, wind, and rain, some of the students began saying they felt raindrops. There in the back was Kip, leaning his chair back far enough to reach the drinking fountain behind him and flicking handfuls of water over the group. Seeing that what probably began as a way to annoy his classmates was quickly becoming a valuable visual/tactile aide, I continued with my presentation. By the time Jesus had calmed the seas, Kip had stopped flicking water. As I later dismissed the class, I caught Kip by the arm and held him back while the others went on ahead. Expecting to be rebuked yet again for disruptive behavior, Kip was genuinely surprised as I thanked him for adding so much to my simple lesson and told him how much I truly appreciated his ingenuity and courage to do what many adults would have objected to. Kip beamed. From that day on, Kip was more attentive in my classes. Years have passed since then; Kip went to college and has become a teacher himself. [Not a homeschool group story, but valuable nonetheless as an example of a student’s “rebellion” being turned into something creative.]

Logan was not a teen fashion model, but he could have been. He followed many fashion trends, especially the pulling-your-jeans-way-down-to-expose-the-top-of-your-boxers fad. He would leave home wearing his belt, but remove it as soon as he got into a class without Mom. The other teens objected, but learned to ignore his less-than-modest couture. When the elementary girls began tripping on the stairs while watching Logan walk past, I knew it was time for something more to be done. I spoke with Logan’s mother, suggesting that perhaps a parental word could convince him of the far-reaching effects of his behavior. She insisted that what looked like boxers was not really underwear, that he was in fact wearing other underwear beneath them, and that the boxers were just decorative. In a group striving for modesty, her argument did not really work, especially when she called herself the group’s “Modesty Cop” and insisted on strict modesty from the girls (for the protection of her sons). [Countless rules were made regarding modesty, but the offenders seemed to be as energetic as the rule-writers, resulting in no changes — except perhaps in attitudes.]

Mark and Nyle were sitting in the designated “study hall” area, having opted out of an uninteresting class (with parental permission). The day was hot and the building was growing warm, despite the air conditioner’s best attempts at cooling. Mark and Nyle discussed their preferred outdoor activities for the period, not realizing that Mrs. Suspicious lurked within eavesdropping distance. When the boys rose to walk to the hallway drinking fountain, Mrs. Suspicious incorrectly assumed they were headed outdoors, in flagrant violation of a newly implemented rule against leaving the building during classtime. Mrs. Suspicious reported the suspected plot to her mentor, Mrs. Conclusion Jumper, who confronted Mark (Nyle had successfully managed to disappear when he realized what was about to happen). When Mark told Mrs. CJ that she did not have the facts straight, she blew up and took the matter (and him) to his mother. Mark’s mother defended her son, much to the dismay of both Mrs. Conclusion Jumper and Mrs. Suspicious, who still continue in their efforts to spread negativity wherever they go. [A rule was posted to forbid any child from leaving the building. However, it was so poorly written as to leave one questioning whether older students who drove themselves to classes would actually be allowed to return home.]

Oliver was a wonderful boy in a man’s body. A high school senior, older brother to many siblings, and one of the oldest students in our group, Oliver became a role model for the younger children, whether he wanted to be one or not, but took on that responsibility with great diligence. Oliver was genuinely respectful to all adults and other students, but exhibited a wry sense of humor that some stoics failed to understand. During one field trip to a mansion-turned-museum, his tour guide singled out Oliver as being The Ultimate Troublemaker, which Oliver assuredly was not. Mrs. Tour Guide continually directed snide remarks to Oliver, cautioning him not to touch things, not to do this, and not to do that — none of which Oliver would have considered doing in a place as renowned as this museum. After nearly an hour of such undeserved verbal abuse, Oliver reached above his 6-foot frame and flicked a small sign sticking out above a doorway. The sign spun around and around on its holder, revealing a very tiny portion of the emotions churning through Oliver’s mind. A new parent to our group witnessed only the sign-flicking incident, but not the insults which prompted it, and reported it to the trip’s coordinator a day later, feeling it had been disrespectful and improper public behavior. The coordinator contacted the parents who had been with that particular tour group to obtain as many facts as possible and was able to straighten out the entire ordeal to everyone’s satisfaction. Oliver was ultimately commended for exhibiting tremendous self-control in flicking only the sign, when undoubtedly the presumptuous tour guide deserved much worse. [A prime example of “rebellion” under self-control.]

Cross Jekyll and Hyde with Eddie Haskell for my personal pet peeve: children who change behavior as soon as their parents leave the room. You probably remember Eddie Haskell as the guy on “Leave It to Beaver” who spoke so politely to all the adults, but was the biggest jerk on the planet to the other kids. Fortunately for Wally and the Beav, Ward and June Cleaver saw right through Eddie. An Eddie obeys all the family rules until he gets away from his parents, Eddie speaks disrespectfully about his parents and all other adults, and Eddie encourages his friends to adopt similar attitudes toward their own parents. Eddie has not been taught to have respect for others but to act politely, especially to adults, so Eddie puts on that behavior around the adults and appears to be a model citizen and the ideal child. Once the adults leave the room, however, Eddie the Jerk comes forth. Eddie can be male or female and any age. My personal strategy to guard against my own children becoming an Eddie was to give them the freedom to be themselves around both their friends and me, without fear of my teasing them about things they said or did.

Most discipline problems that arise in a group can be dealt with individually, without affecting the entire group as a whole. Specific incidents often have the effect of illustrating to every child present what types of behavior are or are not acceptable, again without the need for universal legislation. Realizing that each family has its own policy for behavior and discipline and respecting those differences will go a long way toward balancing group dynamics. Often a simple explanation to my children that “if those were my kids, they wouldn’t get away with that” was enough to satisfy any protestations over differences in value systems. Open discussions, common sense, and respect for others will prevent most problems before they start.

[For more information on cooperative classes and group activities, visit Topical Index: Co-op Groups.]

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