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Suspending Ineffective Exclusionary Discipline Practices: A Tale of Two Schools

By Kelcey Schmitz, MSED

A middle school student, Jolena, was asked to work on a group project in science class. Her teacher selected Jolena as the model for a project. The instructions were for Jolena to lie down on a large sheet of paper and another student would trace around her. Next the group would draw and label parts of the circulatory system. Jolena kept finding excuses to not be the model. The teacher told Jolena, sternly, her choices were either lie down and participate in the project or get a zero on the assignment. Jolena yelled obscenities at the teacher and refused to follow directions. The teacher told Jolena to follow her to the hall where she told her she may not pass if she doesn’t finish the project. Jolena pushed the teacher and ran down the hallway. Other teachers heard the commotion and physically escorted Jolena to the office where she met with the principal and was suspended for two days. The teacher also considered pressing charges against the teen.

Six months ago Jolena’s mother passed away from cancer. Jolena and her two younger brothers live with her dad. Her dad works nights and a few days ago the water was shut off and he can’t pay to get it turned on again until pay day. Jolena misses her mother very much and worries a lot about her father and how the four of them will make it from paycheck to paycheck. Since the water had been shut off, she had not been able to shower in days. She knew she would be teased due to the odor and uncleanliness and therefore did not want to participate in the project.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the rate of schools using exclusionary discipline like suspension and explosion has doubled since 1974. In Jolena‘s case, as in many situations in schools across the nation, an instance of willful defiance, excessive tardies, dress code violations, insubordination and even disruptive behavior tend to be the most common causes of suspension and expulsion. Due to the long term harmful effects of exclusive disciplinary practices, many schools reserve them for very serious instances of behavior deemed dangerous or violent to the student themselves, or others.

Evidence is mounting to indicate the use of exclusionary discipline results in adverse effects not only in the student being suspended or expelled, but also non-suspended students in the school (Perry, Morris 2014). Perry and Morris (2014) found that high numbers of out-of-school suspension negatively impact the non-suspended students’ academic outcomes as non-suspended students may feel disconnected in schools that use harsh discipline and have poor classroom climates.

In 2013, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a policy statement on out-of-school suspension and expulsion, calling for an end to the use of this consequence in instances of minor, low intensity behavior problems due to adverse effects on the child’s development. For instance, students suspended or expelled are at an increased risk for future involvement in juvenile and adult criminal justice system and are also at risk of dropping out. In this report they recommend Positive Behavior Intervention and Support as an alternative to exclusionary discipline.

Another issue related to exclusionary discipline that is sounding the alarm is disproportionate discipline. Students of color, students from low socioeconomic status, and those with disabilities are most likely to be the recipients of exclusionary discipline practices. There is no evidence to suggest students of color misbehave more than white students. Dr. Kent McIntoshspoke about vulnerable decision points. One component of becoming fluent in alternate behavioral techniques is helping teachers identify situations that may trigger a response likely to escalate the situation. (McIntosh, 2015)

Dr. McIntosh is part of the PBIS National Technical Assistance Center’s Disproportionality Workgroup. This workgroup is comprised of 20 experts across the nation. They work in subgroups. Each subgroup is working on addressing one of the five points of intervention. Their goal is to pilot their recommended interventions in schools in fall 2015. In the guide “Recommendations for Addressing Discipline Proportionality in Education”, McIntosh and colleagues review the multi-component approach to reducing disproportionality in schools. The products created by this group are posted on this web page: http://pbis.org/school/equity-pbis.

Students like Jolena who are suspended or expelled are at a much higher risk for entering the juvenile justice system and/or dropping out of school (Council of State Governments, 2011). The negative interaction between Jolena and her teacher and other staff, will likely damage any future connection with these two adults, who could be supporting Jolena instead of just hoping that punishing her will improve her behavior.

A common misconception about exclusionary discipline is that students will “learn” from the “punishment”. However,   we can only call a consequence “punishment” if it decreases the occurrence of future behavior (Skinner, 1938). If suspension and expulsion are used but there is not a decrease in problem behavior then this strategy is not effective as a “punisher”. In fact, it might be reinforcing the student who is struggling academically, behaviorally or socially who would rather avoid unpleasant situations at school, making exclusionary discipline counterproductive.

We wouldn’t ask the student who is struggling with reading to go home and come back on Monday and read better. We also wouldn’t send the student to the office if they did a math assignment incorrectly. However, this tends to be a regular practice for students who simply don’t know how to behave, whether it is due to social skill deficits or cultural reasons. Schools that take a culturally informed and instructional approach to behavior and social emotional skills in the same way they would math, reading, or writing are likely to see decreases in office disciplinary referrals, increases in instructional time and stronger bonds established between the teacher and student. The behavior and social-emotional instruction needs to be rigorous, relevant, and done with as much fidelity as academic subjects.


In another school across town, a student named Jesse was homeless. In Jesse’s school they support the entire student by learning all they can from multiple sources about the students’ academic, behavioral and social-emotional needs. Jesse checks-in each morning with Mr. Lohman, the custodian at the middle school. Mr. Lohman makes sure Jesse is clean and fed by offering to allow him to use the locker room to shower and/or change into clean clothes and a choice of granola bars and some fruit and milk before school starts. Jesse hasn’t missed a day of school this year. He is on track academically. Despite his poor living conditions and other risk factors, he is thriving at school. Jesse knows if he is ever in a situation where he becomes anxious or uncomfortable he can cue the teacher and go find Mr. Lohman. At the end of each day Jesse goes to visit Mt. Lohman and they make a plan for him to finish his homework and make sure he knows how to find an evening meal. On average, Mr. Lohman spends about 5-8 minutes a day with Jesse, sometimes more, sometimes less.

A difference between the two schools is that Jolena’s school relies on traditional behavior management, based heavily on punishment. Schools like Jolena’s feel it isn’t their job to teach behavior, consider social-emotional needs, or take into account cultural differences. They believe students should come to school and know how to behave.

School personnel with limited training in preventative and proactive strategies and a basic understanding of behavioral principles and mental health issues are most likely left with fewer “tools in their toolbox” and without alternatives or being able to identify the underlying reasons for misbehavior they can be left to strategies reactive in nature and often ineffective. Absent a schoolwide system of support, teachers are likely on their own to manage behavior in their classroom. Training can help teachers remain calm, detached, respectful and culturally responsive when a student is disruptive or defiant as opposed to further escalating the student’s behavior (Colvin, Scott, 2014)

In Jesse’s school they implement a preventative approach. The staff believe firmly in identifying students at the earliest signs of need and intervening is critical to the student’s success. They also explicitly teach appropriate behaviors and provide acknowledgement when the student does the right thing. They recognize that behavioral errors are no different than academic errors and they signify a need to re-teach the student or provide them with extra support while they are learning. Administrators in Jesse’s school consider themselves leaders of academic, behavior and social-emotional instruction. They make every effort to create a positive school climate supportive of the varying degrees of negative experiences students may face outside the school day.

Jesse’s school, and others, use data to drive their decision making and improve their reactive plan. They utilize office disciplinary referrals (ODRs) to look for patterns at the building and the individual level. The data is reviewed and available regularly. Schools can assess the data to see if strategies, practices, and/or programs are resulting in desired outcomes.

School systems across the nation and internationally are learning how to change the culture and climate of their buildings to be more welcoming, nurturing and safe places, both physically and psychologically. Positive behavioral interventions and supports (PBIS) is a framework for organizing a continuum of graduated supports. PBIS promotes teaching and reinforcing pro-social skills and reducing problem behaviors with the goal to create a safe and supportive school environment to maximize academic outcomes. They can identify early indicators of concern sooner and provide a rapid tiered response for students with academic, behavioral, or social emotional concerns or any combination of the three.

Multi-tiered systems of support (MTSS) allow for early identification, intervention and a continuum of responses with equitable access for all students aimed at preventing, reducing or neutralizing academic, behavioral and social-emotional struggles with the overall goal to reserve intensive, and often limited, resources for students with the greatest needs. By organizing the strategies, practices and programs available to students and creating a clear description, entry, progress monitoring and exit criteria, educators and families can recognize early warning signs and match the student’s need to an existing support for immediate help. Exit criteria allows the child to move out of the support, freeing up resources for another student. (Lane, Kalberg, Menzies, 2009)

With limited amounts of higher education course work in classroom management, teachers are not as prepared to handle behavior challenges. Professional learning is at the heart of the issue of decreasing the use of exclusionary discipline with all students Professional development can teach the skills necessary for educators to address each domain (academic, behavior and social-emotional) simultaneously, identify vulnerable decision points, and plan their responses during escalating interactions with students.

As more and more schools are prepare students to be college and career ready, they are implementing and sustaining best practices to eliminate the use of ineffective and often disproportional exclusionary discipline practices and increase student achievement.


American Academy of Pediatrics Council on School Health. (2013). Policy statement: Out-of-school suspension and expulsion. Pediatrics, 131, e1000-e1007. doi: 10.1542/peds.2012393

Perry, B. L., & Morris, E. W. (2014). Suspending Progress Collateral Consequences of Exclusionary Punishment in Public Schools. American Sociological Review, 0003122414556308.

Colvin, G., Scott, T.M. (2014) Managing the cycle of acting-out behavior in the Classroom (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press

Lane, K. L., Kalberg, J. R., & Menzies, H. M. (2009). Developing schoolwide programs to prevent and manage problem behaviors: A step-by-step approach. Guilford Press.

Losen, D.J. (2011). Discipline Policies, Successful Schools, and Racial Justice. Boulder, CO: National Education Policy Center. Retrieved [March 30, 2015] from http://nepc.colorado.edu/publication/discipline-policies.

McIntosh, K. (2015) Keynote address. 12th Annual Conference on Positive Behavior Support. Boston, MA.

Skinner, B.F. (1938). The Behavior of organisms: An experimental analysis. New York: Appleton-Century.

Fabelo, T., Thompson, M., Plotkin, M., Carmichael, D., Marchbanks, M., & Booth, E. (2011, July). Breaking Schools’ Rules: A Statewide Study of How School Discipline Relates to Students’ Success and Juvenile Justice Involvement. New York, NY: Council of State Governments Justice Center. Retrieved [April 2, 2015] from http://knowledgecenter.csg.org/kc/system/files/Breaking_School_Rules.pdf


Kelcey Schmitz is a 2012 graduate of the Department of Special Education at the University of Kansas. She has worked in the field of challenging behaviors for almost 20 years. She has a background in applied behavior analysis and positive behavior interventions and support (PBIS). Early in her career she supported students with autism and other developmental disabilities at home, school and in the community, providing coaching and support for families, teachers and students. Kelcey works with districts and school buildings to help them develop, implement, and sustain evidenced based practices within a prevention framework to support all students. Kelcey presents regularly at state and national conferences. Kelcey is a member of the Association of Positive Behavior Support, Council for Exceptional Children, and the Council for Children with Behavioral Disorders. She is also a member of the Midwest Symposium for Leadership in Behavior Disorders planning committee and is a part of the weekly #PBISchat moderating team.

A Look Back at Special Education Through the Eyes of a Retiring Professor

By Sally Roberts, Ph.D., Associate Professor, Associate Dean

Reflection on ones past experiences and the impact they might have had is something that often happens at the end of a career. Since I will be retiring on June 1 of this year after 47 years as a special educator, I thought it might be interesting to describe what happened in my life that shaped my career.

I was one of the original baby boomers—born in 1946 about 9 and a half months after my father returned home from the German occupation forces following the end of WWII. Disability was made visible in America as a result of the soldiers returning from the war with physical and mental disabilities from their military engagement. The U.S. Congress responded to the needs of these returning veterans with rehabilitation legislation. While this legislation was primarily targeted to provide servicemen with recognition and support, others benefited as well. For example, individuals with mental retardation were included in the legislation in 1943, making vocational training available to them for the first time.

Meanwhile, I was growing up in a small town in western Kansas that certainly wasn’t prepared for the large numbers of children who would enter their school five years after the war ended. The district would never catch up beginning with the 48 kindergartners both morning and afternoon when I started elementary school to the need for classes held in trailers and under the stage all through high school. Students with learning disabilities and mild mental retardation were simply incorporated into the classes where they sat largely ignored. Some had parents who worked with them to try to keep up. Looking back, I’m certain my younger brother had learning difficulties. My mother taught him to read and I did his math homework. There were no students with vision, hearing, or physical disabilities in our schools. They were either sent away to residential schools or, more likely, just kept at home.

I graduated from high school in 1964 and went to Wichita University for my bachelor’s degree. That was the year that WU became one of the six state-supported universities in Kansas and was renamed Wichita State University. Two things occurred based on the time and location for my college education that impacted my future career. I decided to major in speech/language pathology (SLP) and elementary education. The university trained SLPs in the Department of Communicative Disorders with a clinical laboratory at a residential facility at the edge of campus called the Institute of Logopedics. The children and youth who resided at the Institute came from all over the world and most had significant physical, sensory, and cognitive disabilities. There were two internationally recognized individuals in residence at that time; one was the former president of the American Speech and Hearing Association as well as the director of the program at Northwestern University, Clarence T. Simon. The other was Orvis C. Irwin who was engaged on a full-time basis in research. As students in the program, we were trained while working directly with the children and adolescents residing at the Institute. We also participated in Dr. Irwin’s research efforts. By the end of my senior year, I had completed over a thousand hours of monitored direct services to students. There is certainly no better way to learn than with hands on experience!

The second thing that impacted my career was the widespread pandemic of rubella—German measles—that occurred between 1962 and 1965, starting in Europe and spreading to the United States. In the years 1964-65, the United States had an estimated 12.5 million rubella cases in women who were in the first trimester of their pregnancy. This led to approximately 11,000 miscarriages and 20,000 cases of congenital rubella syndrome. Of those children who did not die as neonates, 12,000 were deaf, 3,600 were blind, and 1,800 had mental retardation. Remember, I graduated from high school in 1964 and from college in 1968. The children who were born with congenital rubella in the 1964-65 epidemic were reaching school age in 1970. This was prior to the passage of the Education for All Handicapped Children’s Act (Public Law 94-142) in 1975 so, depending on the extent of their disabilities, the children were entering Schools for the Deaf, Schools for the Blind, and residential institutions such as Winfield State Hospital and Kansas Neurological Institute in Topeka. No one knew what to do to teach this new group of students.

In response to this burgeoning population, the federal government began providing training funds to develop a group of individuals who were able to work with these children with significant needs. Because of my undergraduate training at the Institute of Logopedics, I not only had the unique experience necessary, but the interest to expand my knowledge in this area. My master’s degree in deaf education was completely supported by these federal funds. When I took a position at the Kansas State School for the Deaf, my students were all deaf and visually impaired as a result of congenital rubella. I was sent to a variety of programs throughout the United States to both receive training to work with these students with dual sensory loss as well as to be involved in research efforts to learn how to better serve this population. To show the impact of the rubella epidemic on U.S. numbers, the Kansas School for the Deaf normally had a graduating class of 15 to 20 students. The year our “rubella kids” graduated we had 87 seniors!

Finally, the history and timing of special education growth through the 60s and 70s impacted my ultimate career path. When the Education for All Handicapped Children’s Act was passed in 1975, the law addressed two specific groups of children and youth with disabilities—those that were underserved and those that were unserved. The level of student for whom I had been trained to teach was primarily unserved—the children and youth with significant disabilities who were housed in residential schools and institutions.

In the early days, these facilities operated on a medical model of service delivery. Focus was placed, at best, on care with dignity; at worst, children languished on wards with little to no interaction. When the law was passed, all of a sudden, staff in these residential facilities were being asked to move to a program of active goal-directed treatment, education, and habilitation. The KU Department of Special Education was asked to develop training programs for individuals serving students with the most significant disabilities so that they would not only know what to do, but actually be qualified to receive a teaching degree. In the early 80s, I moved from the School for the Deaf to KU to participate in providing this training.

The other thing that end of career reflection does is to allow one to take stock of what has been accomplished and what is still left to do. The institutions in Kansas have been closed to children, that is a good thing. We have a vaccine for rubella and the elimination of rubella and congenital rubella syndrome is now a goal throughout the Western Hemisphere as well as in developing countries. Public Law 94-142 will mark its 50th anniversary in 2025. We have made great national progress in serving all children with disabilities and providing them with a free and appropriate education. I find, however, that I’m not quite ready to stop serving students with the most significant disabilities. I still want to expand and support equal opportunities to this population. Maybe I will just go back to doing what I did in the beginning…roll up my sleeves and return to the schools and classrooms where these students are being served to see if I might be able to strengthen quality programs for this population.


Cooper, L.Z. (1975). Congenital rubella in the United States. In S. Krugman & A. Gershon (Eds.). Symposium on infections of the fetus and newborn infant. New York: Alan R Liss Inc.


Sally Roberts, Ph.D., is associate professor in the Department of Special Education and Associate Dean for Teacher Education and Undergraduate Programs at the University of Kansas. Her academic interests include individuals with significant disabilities, those with deaf-blindness, and those with hearing loss. She has done extensive research and published in the areas of behavior states, communication both symbolic and non-symbolic, and instructional strategies for students with dual sensory impairments. Dr. Roberts received the Distinguished Service Award for University Outreach and Continuing Education and the University Continuing Education Association Great Plains Excellence in Teaching Award in 2005. She also received the Award for Outstanding Service to Students with Disabilities in 2004, the Outstanding Mentor Award and Graduate and Professional Association Graduate Student Mentorship Awards in 2003; the Graduate Student Award for Distinguished Service in 1991; and the TASH Alice H. Hayden Award for Outstanding Research, Teaching, and Community Service in 1989. She was also a University of Kansas Nominee for outstanding dissertation in1992. In her current position as Associate Dean, Dr. Roberts administers the 29 licensure and endorsement educator preparation programs for initial and advanced teaching licenses as well as the undergraduate degrees in Health Sport and Exercise Sciences.

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