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The Benefits of Changing School Discipline

Making progress towards more compassionate, effective, and equitable approaches.

Key points

  • Mandating administrators stop suspensions will not solve disciplinary problems. We must replace suspensions with something more effective.
  • Punitive responses exacerbate chronic stress, perpetuating a vicious cycle for the most at-risk, misunderstood, and marginalized students.
  • Proven alternatives exist that do not rely on power and control, and combat rather than reinforce racially biased practices.
ESB Professional/Shutterstock
Source: ESB Professional/Shutterstock

When California passed a measure a few years ago banning suspensions for acts of willful defiance in elementary and middle schools, the reaction was mixed. People feared what might happen if we took away one of the most frequently used tools in our schools’ toolboxes when managing severe behavior.

I argued that mandating administrators to stop suspending students would not, on its own, solve the problem. We cannot simply take something that has not been working away. We must replace it with something more effective. Thankfully, proven alternatives exist that do not rely on power and control and combat rather than reinforce racially biased practices.

So, it was incredibly gratifying to see a new law passed in our home state of Massachusetts this past week requiring decision-makers to utilize evidence-based alternatives to suspension in our public schools. The approach we teach at Think:Kids, called Collaborative Problem Solving (CPS), was named as one of the recommended alternatives alongside other models, like restorative practices, which pair very well with each other.

Traditional school disciplinary procedures, like suspensions, have been shown to be ineffective for the students to whom they are most applied—students of color, students with disabilities, and students with trauma histories. Because punitive responses to behavioral challenges only exacerbate chronic stress for students and educators alike, they perpetuate a vicious cycle for the most at-risk, misunderstood, and marginalized students. Research has clearly shown that punitive discipline increases the likelihood of further discipline and is related to higher dropout rates, lower academic achievement, and involvement in the juvenile justice system.

We know why suspensions don’t work and make things worse. Disciplinary strategies like this are targeted at motivating students to behave better. But focusing on motivation is barking up the wrong therapeutic tree. Students who struggle to control their behavior at school don’t lack the will to behave well, they lack the skills to behave well. Focusing on a specific student’s struggles with certain skills as the root of their misbehavior has the potential to reduce the harmful effects of racial or socioeconomic disparities in school disciplinary practices.

Requiring the use of proven, relational forms of discipline, like Collaborative Problem Solving and restorative practices, that focus on building skills is critical if we are to make progress toward more compassionate, effective, and equitable school discipline. I am hopeful that this law will help to decrease the disproportionality of school discipline and, in the most severe cases, help interrupt the school-to-prison pipeline.

References

Ablon, JS, Pollastri, AR. The School Discipline Fix: Changing Behavior using Collaborative Problem Solving. New York: Norton; 2018.

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