Are schools relying too heavily on harsh disciplinary methods (such as suspension)? To what extent should stringent measures be incorporated into education? What are viable alternatives?

Charter schools are allowed to create their own discipline policies, and this has, in turn, led to very high suspension rates. According to Chalkbeat, “Schools say suspensions maintain order, keep children safe, and allow teachers to focus on instruction by removing the most distracting students.” But, as a result, some students — arguably, those who need to be in school the most — are missing more than 20 school days each year due to this disciplinary action. Many are being suspended for minor nonviolent acts, such as chewing gum.


Amy Roter, In-School Suspension Teacher and Anti-Bullying Specialist

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I am an In-School Suspension teacher and the Anti-Bullying Specialist at a high school. I was chosen for this position in part because I come at the job from a mental health and counseling perspective. When students come to me, we have a discussion about what happened. If the student is with me all day, I often give him ore her activities to complete to help him or her with this reflection. I believe that having a counseling component along with some discipline is crucial. The discipline is to enforce that the actions are not ok and are against school policy, but the counseling is to help the student reflect upon their actions and perhaps come up with better alternatives

Nikki Morgan, Tutor, Writer, Aspiring teacher, and Parent of two

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I probably have a different perspective than many in the education field today when it comes to punishments in schools. I hold a certain amount of disdain for behaviorist approaches to educating and parenting children, because these approaches focus on the behavior rather than the whole child. I much prefer to think of children who act in ways that adults deem inappropriate as having needs that aren't being met by their situation. Behaviorist thinkers focus mostly on controlling children rather than working with them, and tend to ignore the fact that sometimes what adults expect of children is unreasonable and/or unnecessary. I subscribe to Alfie Kohn's findings on punishment and rewards that show that punishments are largely ineffective when it comes to creating individuals who are internally motivated to do good. Punishments can be effective at creating temporary compliance, but do not adequately take into account the underlying emotions that children experience and unmet needs that children have. For further reading into this perspective, please look at Alfie Kohn's work, such as "Punished by Rewards" and "Unconditional Parenting."

Tedra Osell, PhD, Parent of 2e teen, former homeschooler and college professor, SENG Model Parent Group Facilitator

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Seconding Amy's response above, and adding my experience as the parent of a 2e (gifted and learning disabled) son--when he was in a school that thought of behavior problems as "discipline issues," all that happened was that he became more and more alienated, angry, and mistrustful of adults--both for how his own behaviors were dealt with and because of how the behaviors of kids who were bullying him were dealt with. Punishment sets up an adversarial relationship (and for kids who dislike school, suspension is, if anything, a reward).

In my son's current school, which focuses on the 2e population and emphasizes behavior, mental health, and counseling as much as it does academics, the staff and faculty think of behavior "problems" as learning opportunities. With very rare exceptions, suspensions are all in school; the kids spend the day in the counselor's or VP's office doing their course- and homework. There's huge emphasis on talking through problems, explaining the "why" of rules where needed, and being firm but non-reactive (i.e., insisting that kids have to follow the rules but doing so in a calm, non-blaming and non-angry way). Validating the kids' feelings without letting them off the hook is important. The faculty often use phrases like "time and place" by way of explaining to these bright, argumentative kids that they need to make decisions about their behavior and that just because they may feel angry (frustrated, upset, anxious) they can still choose how to handle or express that anger (step away, talk to a counselor, ask for a moment to recover). The difference it makes is huge.

That said, in schools that are overcrowded and/or under-resourced, faculty and staff may lack the training, time, and resources to handle behavior issues with the compassion and skill we would like them to. And people often approach student populations that are seen as "at risk" or "learning averse" or otherwise "challenging" with a "discipline first" attitude that conflates firm expectations (good) with unsympathetic attitudes (not good). It can be hard for parents, too, to learn how to be firm but kind! I think the best ways to counter this problem are to focus on training--in methods of positive discipline, on recognizing behaviors that are symptoms of mental health or learning disorders, and so forth--and, where needed, to advocate for the necessary resources to provide both training and the necessary support professionals and resources (is there space for appropriately supervised in-school suspensions in your school?) to help kids learn better behaviors and strategies.

Anonymous, Author, Journalist, Novelist, Mom

Whether or not suspension is "harsh" I found this article compelling: It suggests that listening to students and talking to them about what's going on in their lives has a profound effect on how they behave. In the April 2012 issue of Journal of School Violence Pamela Fenning and colleagues noted that suspensions tend to exacerbate problems.

Norfina Joves, Educational Specialist

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When it comes to disciplinary actions and handling misbehaviors in most schools, there are wide disparities on practices, from moderate to severe form of punishment. Research shows that concerns and issues on disciplinary measures can stem from environmental influences, poverty, widening gaps in corrective actions among student group populations, biases in school discipline, and racial, ethnic and gender differences in school discipline among public schools. For example, studies find that racial disparities exist largely in classroom referrals to the office and, to a smaller level, in the sanctions applied by administrators. In addition, researchers attribute classroom practices of disproportionality to the differing social expectations and possibly cultural mismatch between school staff and students. There are also negative expectations or stereotypes of students, and conscious and unconscious biases that exist in class and school grounds. As a solution, most schools and districts institute various disciplinary practices from school-wide positive behavioral interventions and supports to “no tolerance” laws that gives principals and superintendents increased discretion to use alternatives to suspension, expulsion, and even mandatory reporting to law enforcement. What has been found to be most effective include positive behavioral approach that promote school and classroom good behavior where clear expectations are widely announced, visible, and promoted around campus. Students who may embody school messaging like “Respect, Responsibility, and Relationship” are incentivize to continue to behave with integrity and compliance to school policy. School-wide positive behavior policies have been applied in many schools to increase academic achievement, attendance and decrease out-of-school suspensions. Another alternative is to provide mental health support for student dealing with trauma, severe behavioral issues and behavioral and learning challenges. This is connected to creating a social emotional learning environment where child development experts, for instance, advocate for students at young age to be exposed, educated, and provided the tools necessary to integrate natural emotional responses. In studying child development and having been in research to support child psychiatry, early childhood and elementary school years need to integrate these responses with increasing cognitive and linguistic skills. By learning to identify and articulate those emotions, regulate how they express and response to emotions, and understanding how to empathize with others, children learn to gain ways to cope with life that promote healthy life-long prosocial behaviors and attitudes. In all, intervention or preventive strategies that can be incorporated in education to ensure safe environment and student success can only be as effective if well supported by leadership, school administrators, and community. A school-wide commitment to school discipline that emphasizes these critical factors can help restore community and teach social skills instead of punishment.

The Institute for the Redesign of Learning, Our mission is simple: to empower individuals with special needs to take charge of their own learning and lives, making it possible for them to be competent, caring and contributing members of society.

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The answer to this depends on what a person means by “relying on” suspensions. If the intent of the suspension is to send a message of how severe a behavior or set of behaviors is, then perhaps over-reliance isn’t an issue. There are corners of the bureaucratic and public-relations sides of education that do not deem a school “serious enough” if, in their perception, harsher measures are not utilized. But if the intent of the disciplinary measure is a changed person, I think it is safe to say that, though suspensions absolutely have a place in the process, they do not have the transformative power they might have once held. And, like a craftsman who arrives on the worksite with only a hammer in their toolbox, administrators are often left to over-reliance on those disciplinary measures which will satiate the public’s desire for action and create the paper trail necessary for future decisions on placement and intervention in an alternative setting where the assumption is “more can be done.” It is unfortunate that handing down a sentence based on pre-determined criterion is far easier to implement and justify than interventions crafted to identify the nature and root of the behavioral problem, clarify expectations on each party involved, and create opportunities for both justice and transformation. These are possible, and take Wisdom, Skill, Risk, Permission and, ultimately, much more Time to create.

WISDOM is perhaps the most difficult to come by, as it often requires highly educated people to challenge the very training they worked years developing – after all, if conventional thinking worked we wouldn’t be asking these questions. One solution for this is regular multidisciplinary input from a wide variety of perspectives on student behavior - not just from the usual suspects of Social Workers, Psychologists, Behaviorists and Special Educators but from Occupational Therapists, Speech Pathologists, and Physical Educators. Each of these disciplines perceives behavior from divergent philosophies, and their feedback can be invaluable. SKILL comes through practice and refinement, and this works best when on a team of trustworthy, student-first professionals that can provide feedback on what seems to be working and not working. RISK is a necessary part of the equation, as there are often little clear and recyclable interventions when individualizing discipline for students through the lenses of justice and transformation. What worked for one student might not work for the next, and what worked last week might not work today. Anyone who says there is no guess-work in this work has either never engaged in it or has a superficial understanding of it. It is important to note, though, that taking risks and being risky are not synonymous: the former is done with a heart and mind on transformative justice, while the latter finds it’s roots in ego and power. These three factors may be in place, but they mean nothing without the power of PERMISSION. School administration is a difficult task at the school level, let alone the district or organizational level. All too often, in well-intentioned attempts to ensure justice and fairness for all students, districts and organizations create policies rather than rely on their professionals, removing from the site administrator the permission to make decisions based on disciplined judgment and the welfare of the learners involved. When faced with career-threatening discipline if they veer from policy-driven disciplinary measures, few are willing to risk so much, opting instead for implementing sentences rather than supports. Districts and organizations must wrestle with the war between policy and permission – and administrators must stand with courage for what is right in order to get the conversation moving in that direction. And lastly, TIME is a factor which cannot be understated. To consider deeply the justice-needs of the offended student or staff, the measures necessary to support the transformation of the offender, to engage with respect the staff and parents of each involved to promote growth and learning, and to walk the tightrope of differential decision-making that threatens to push your school culture towards the dangerous poles of a heavy-handed punitive culture or an open-minded permissive one, time must be taken. Despite the pressures to act, haste is not the friend of supportive discipline.

Nancy Tilton, Founder / Facilitator ALC Mosaic

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I too have read a lot of Alfie Kohn's writing and do not use a behaviorist approach with my students. Rather than focusing on how to reward or punish them into compliance, our focus is on "what kind of culture do we want to create?" Each week we hold a school wide change-up meeting (our school only has 23 children - so this could be a classroom in a larger school) where we ask ourselves the question, "What do we want more of/less of at school?" Then we make community agreements to work on making our school culture better.

We have a Community Mastery Board with 4 columns that we use to check in with. Column one says "Awareness" where we put in items that we want to discuss as a community. "Implementation" is next where we implement ideas to help solve problems that are put into our awareness. We agree to implement an idea for a week and see how it feels. If the idea works well, we move it into the next column, "Practicing." Once something becomes routine for the community because it's been practiced so much, that goes in "Mastery."

For example, a real problem we had was the boys playing with balls in the hallway. This was put into the "Awareness" column. This was not safe for other kids who didn't want a ball zooming by them as they walked by, and it was just too loud. A kid who was working on a project in the library couldn't have quiet. Kids brought up that the school was too loud and they didn't like this. The other kids could hear from their peers why this was so and we made an agreement to try out as a community, "Outside toys are played with outside (and we showed examples of outside toys). We also put in implementation, "Keep hallway quiet." Then when kids would break this agreement during the week, other adults and kids simply remind them, "Hey - remember at Change-up Meeting we agreed to practice keeping balls outside?" Then the kids have the thoughts of their peers to reflect on about this and it's a reminder, not an adult just nagging them or an arbitrary rule that they aren't connected to.

The next week we check in on our previous agreements and see how they went and work on other agreements if needs. The kids feel that the school feels calmer and safer with the two agreements I mentioned above and we kept those in practice. Eventually the agreements we make that have been practiced for weeks are put into our Mastery column as they become a part of our cultural DNA.

I believe that helping a community, classroom, or even a family, focus on what they DO want to create (rather than just focusing on good or bad behaviors to punish or reward) is a much healthier approach.

The system I describe is not new to our school - this is actually an Agile Management technique that schools in our network borrowed from successfully run software management companies. We focus on building positive culture. We believe that once a positive culture is established based on co-creation and trust, deep and engaged learning can happen.

Bruce Feiler has a great TED Talk describing how to use this approach for your family. If you watch, you can see how we've adapted his concepts for school use. Check out his TED Talk here:

Lisa Beymer, Educational leader, Teacher

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My answer will always be to focus first on the student. We need to understand the needs and the wants of the students first, because that's why behaviors occur. Behaviors are a student's way of communicating something, without fully knowing how to communicate it appropriately. Or, perhaps, they've tried to communicate it appropriately and no one has noticed. The student is desiring something, we just need to figure out what it is. I don't see any better way to figure it out than to talk to the student. I think we often punish first, ask questions later. This approach doesn't allow us to see the whole picture - as we know, there are always (at least) 2 sides to every story. It seems only fair, and I believe ethically right, to allow the student to speak their part. We've also got to accept the role that home life plays in student behaviors, and support the family however we can. We need to show empathy first, and halt judgment. We can never fully understand the individual story of a family, but we should surely try to learn what we can in order to provide support. Support should be provided for both the student and the parent.

Concerning punishment methods: I think we often jump to harsher punishments such as suspension, which in turn gives the student exactly what they want - escape from the environment. Instead, it seems that adjusting our environment to meet the needs of the student would diminish behaviors and therefore diminish need to address behaviors. The time and effort spent up-front to address the school environment would certainly "pay off" in the end, and it's what the students deserve. Students deserve, and need, a safe place to discover, grow, and learn. It is our moral and professional obligation to give that to them. If we start there, we wouldn't have to be having as many of these discussions.

I say treat each case individually, because we are dealing with individuals. No student is alike, and neither should our approach to their behaviors. Students first, always.

Alexander Baack, Founder/Director, Altadena Free School and Force Education Project

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It's my strong feeling that enforced schooling is a human rights violation. If a student is rebelling against his/her situation, it is nothing more than a natural human impulse against oppression. Why not let them out of prison to discover how they want to live their life, experience their liberty and pursue their happiness?

Joan McLachlan, Director, Internship Quest; researcher and author

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High school students too often get in trouble in school because they are bored and not engaged. And this can lead to acting out and fights, which will get them suspended. However, one way to address this issue is for high schools to have an internship program so that young people can get some practical experience in the real world. An internship gives students an alternative to sitting in the classroom and hanging out with their friends during the school day. As an intern, a student is on his own in an adult world. He no longer is tempted to “show off” for his friends nor will he be tempted to engage in activities that would lead to suspension. As an intern he is working with adults and a will soon see that there are ways to problem-solve other than physical confrontation. An internship will show him that there is a world for him outside the high school doors.

Colleen Clemens, College Professor, Writer, Editor, Tutor & Parent

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This question is so challenging. Having taught classes in which one student being out made instruction more possible, I find myself torn about how to best handle this issue. When I had ISS (in school suspension) duty, I would ask my students what was going on because I could see them. I wanted to talk with them to find out what was happening. When I had to send students work, I would ask them to write a reflection about why they were there, was there something we needed to know about life at this moment? A student had to do something harsh--threaten another student, bring drugs--to get out of school suspension. Schools are asked to do too many things. How are teachers supposed to teach when schools are getting rid of guidance counselors and social workers that are there and equipped to help kids? My district had one social worker FOR THE ENTIRE DISTRICT. These disciplinary measures are in place because the public education system cannot handle all that is being asked of it with the meager resources it is being given.

Lois Weiner, Teacher educator, researcher, former city teacher

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We need to teach kids the social skills that support academic learning - listening respectfully to others; talking respectfully to others in the class; settling disputes with words, not physical violence. (Note: The contender for President of the US who said he wants to punch his opponents in the face clearly missed this socialization.) After the skills are taught, they need to be reinforced, consistently, especially if kids live in environments in which they see disputes handled differently. However, increasingly this is not being done because teachers are so pressured to cover material that will be tested. We need to restore the sense of community and caring to classrooms and schools so that all kids feel they are valued and respected. That can be done many different ways.

Vielka Cecilia Hoy, Founder/Director at Vielka Hoy Consulting, Teacher, and Parent

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I have found this to be quite true. As a public high school teacher, I worked with other teachers to create a restorative justice program that immediately reduced suspensions and taught students to recognize how violence impacted their communities. As a dean at a charter school, I was suspending for relatively minor infractions with few opportunities for restorative justice. It was heart-breaking. And I definitely saw how both methods translated to college matriculation.

It is important that we see schools as opportunities for students to learn about themselves and their surroundings outside of the world being particularly harsh and rigid. This would perhaps lead to some carry-over in how we punish adults and use law enforcement to reduce crime rather than arrest.

Dr. Aaron Smith, Ph.D. in Educational Leadership, Currently Program Director at Aviation Academy, Co-Author of Awakening Your STEM School

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There are many factors in determining whether a student needs to be suspended out of school or not. First, we need to eliminate the zero tolerance situations (i.e. drugs). Those are a safety issue and definitely need to protect the rest of the students by taking them out of the school.

For a lesser infraction, there can be some consideration based upon the Discipline manual (We call it the Right and Responsibilities handbook). Most of them have flexibility from a conference to an out of school suspension. If I was the administrator handling it, I would carefully look at the incident, the evidence and then look at the student as a person. Hopefully some consideration such as a "time out" or "meeting with a parent" can resolve many cases but some stronger interventions could include community service at the school, or even separation from the class for a couple of periods. I've often found this to be successful and a good deterrent with them doing a long behavioral essay. If it is a Special needs student, then the IEP team may need to convene and determine if a Behavior Intervention Plan (BIP) should be started. This is another good use of intervention.

If you are looking to start an intervention program at a school, I would suggest the RTI (Response To Intervention). I've seen it greatly reduce out of school suspensions and even change the culture of the building.

Cindy Terebush, MS Early Childhood Studies, Provider of Professional Development for Teachers

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I have never quite understood the goal of suspension from the perspective of trying to teach children. A student does something that is deemed inappropriate....and is rewarded with time outside the educational environment. When a student is disruptive, saying, "You can't be here" teaches nothing and doesn't address the underlying issues. I do think that there are situations that warrant separation from the everyday routine but adults need to be careful that the consequence is instructive rather than punishment. Behaviorist BF Skinner taught that when we punish children, they only learn to avoid punishment. How many times have we heard tales of teens who were grounded so they climbed out the window? They will find other ways and do other things until the underlying problems are addressed. I do think that certain behaviors warrant evaluation and therapy. There need to measurable, positive goals for students that provide a reward that matters to them. Finally, we need to know that not every setting works for every student. There need to be alternative learning environments for students who do not fit the "sit at the desks for 6 hours" cookie cutter. I am an educator. I educate educators and I believe that the more we learn about special needs, emotional intelligence and behavior needs to start informing the variety of teaching options and settings that are available to children.

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