Suspension Is No Longer the Only Tool Educators Have to Address Discipline Problems

A student yells at a teacher, engages in an altercation with a peer or is continually late to class. For decades, under a zero-tolerance framework, the result has been the same: detention, suspension or even arrest. This strict, exclusionary approach has fostered a school climate across the nation that has over-emphasized discipline, built barriers between students and teachers and disrupted learning. Over the past five years, we have begun to see a shift in the paradigm with a mix of new approaches to school discipline. For example, those very same student actions are now increasingly followed by a “restorative circle,” where the students work together to repair the harms done and make things right for all involved. Through this process, school leaders are able to not only agree on a more proactive, restorative response to discipline problems, but also empower students to build positive relationships, make smart decisions and hone their problem-solving skills.

Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports

Some schools are adopting restorative circles within a broader context of proactive approaches, like the school-wide positive behavior interventions and supports (PBIS) framework, which establishes the climate that can help students achieve social, emotional and academic success. Restorative practices can work in concert with PBIS to promote a school climate defined by empathy, understanding and peaceful mediation. That type of climate, according to a joint 2013 study from the National School Climate Center and Fordham University, can also pave the way for increased student motivation and achievement rates—as well as decreased dropout rates, substance use and incidences of violence. Instead of fading into the background or struggling to manage their emotions, youth constructively respond to conflicts and leverage a comprehensive support system. Some school districts have embraced this new paradigm over the past eight years, phasing out zero-tolerance policies with these transformative and proactive approaches to school discipline. The results coming in from across the country over that time have been impressive. After implementing restorative practices across the district, Chicago Public Schools’ suspension rate dropped by seven percent from 2009 to 2014. Los Angeles Unified School District noted a 92 percent decrease in the number of days lost to suspensions, leading the city to bring restorative justice programs to all of its schools by 2020. And Mayor Bill de Blasio in New York City has developed an entire leadership team to investigate how approaches such as restorative justice can reduce disparities in suspensions and expulsions.

Making Sure It Works Across Classrooms and Schools

My own research team, in collaboration with colleagues at Johns Hopkins University, has shown through multiple, rigorous studies that schools implementing PBIS—a proactive system that supports students’ needs through effective data-based decision-making—improved student behavior, school climate and other academic outcomes. Specifically, our large-scale, federally-funded research on PBIS in both elementary and secondary schools demonstrated significant reductions in problem behaviors such as suspensions, office discipline referrals and aggressive behavior. It also highlighted improvements in prosocial behavior and social-emotional functioning. We are now using these approaches to try to close the discipline gap for students of color and are seeing some promising results. However, we must continue to build the evidence base to confirm the efficacy of these approaches. We cannot significantly reduce violence and increase the safety of our schools without systematically analyzing how these models are best used in the classroom. We need to take the time to ensure these approaches work across different classroom settings and for various student populations—and attend closely to issues related to implementation fidelity.

Promoting System-Wide Change

School leaders, thus, should gauge the effectiveness of their current efforts and identify areas of improvement through annual school climate surveys completed by both students and teachers. They can collaborate with parents and community members to use these surveys and develop programs that improve the safety and connectedness in a school. And, to ensure effective implementation of such programs, schools can provide ongoing professional development to all of their staff—from teachers and bus drivers to cafeteria workers and paraprofessionals. Through proactive, equitable and sustainable school-wide efforts, we can promote system-wide change in the approach to discipline. Schools across the country now have a larger menu of research-validated school discipline strategies to use in lieu of punishment-based approaches—and are encouraged to do so with a focus on school climate as a potential indicator of quality under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). If these strategies are implemented well, we may consistently see positive impacts on academic achievement, students’ sense of belonging and safety. Therefore, while school discipline problems persist and zero-tolerance policies still remain in many schools, we have research that highlights the effectiveness of shifting the discipline paradigm toward more proactive approaches like PBIS and restorative circles. Suspension is no longer the only tool educators have in their toolkit to address discipline problems.
Catherine Bradshaw, Ph.D., M.Ed. is a professor and the associate dean for Research and Faculty Development at the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia; she is also the co-director of the CDC-funded Johns Hopkins Center for the Prevention of Youth Violence and co-director of the NIMH-funded Johns Hopkins Center for Prevention and Early Intervention. She collaborates on ...

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