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.