Rethink Discipline With Positive Alternatives to Suspension
By Zach Riffell and Jahana Martin, SREB
Suspending students from school as a form of discipline does little to reduce future misbehavior, and it certainly doesn’t improve academic success, studies show. Many educators and parents hold that suspensions have negative effects on students, such as decreased academic performance and workforce readiness, due to the loss of critical instructional time. Most suspended students also become repeat offenders, with detrimental consequences for students and communities.
Boys Town, a nonprofit dedicated to changing the way America cares for children and families, addresses these challenges by empowering schools to develop positive alternatives to suspension that keep more students in school, improve safety across campuses and strengthen communities as a result.
Steph Jensen, director of community contracts for Boys Town National Community Supports, explains that in most schools, a code of conduct provides a model of progressive discipline that details the severity of various offenses as well as policies for repeat offenders. Interventions typically begin with informal warnings before escalating to written warnings and eventually some type of removal from the classroom. In-school suspensions generally last fewer than 10 days; out-of-school suspensions are usually over 10 days; and expulsion removes the student from school for the remainder of the year.
Jensen points out that the increase in suspensions nationwide may be linked to zero tolerance policies implemented in the 1990s in response to the need to address rising school violence and increase school safety. Such policies were originally intended to target the most egregious violent behaviors, such as possession of guns and knives, but they quickly started to be applied to lower-level threats such as using inappropriate language and cheating. As a result, American students are being suspended more often.
Why Suspensions Don’t Work
If a school’s goal is to use suspension to decrease student misbehavior, removing students from the classroom is likely to have the opposite effect. Boys Town research found that one in-school suspension or out-of-school suspension often leads to multiple out-of-school suspensions. This cycle “disproportionately impacts our students of color,” notes Jensen. She found the same disparities occurred with students with disabilities.
Jensen maintains that when zero tolerance policies are applied to lower-level misbehaviors, schools create an environment in which students are not in school, do not learn critical social and academic skills, and lack adult supervision. This increases the possibility they will engage in more dangerous, unhealthy and risk-taking behaviors outside of school — behaviors that often lead to incarceration. Negative academic impacts occur as well: Jensen found that students who have been suspended have lower reading scores.
Suspensions also lead to an increase in the school dropout rate and a decrease in workforce readiness. “We see these zero tolerance policies have an overall negative impact not only on the schools and the individual students, but they also start to affect our communities,” Jensen maintains.
Positive Alternatives to Suspension
Boys Town intervention strategies begin when students’ infractions are small, before they grow into more serious offenses, says Denise Pratt, Boys Town senior national training consultant. Boys Town developed the Positive Alternatives to Suspension program to help reduce suspensions by helping students demonstrate appropriate behaviors to achieve both social and academic success while retaining safety for all students and staff.
Rather than taking a punitive approach, the Positive Alternatives to Suspension program aims to:
- Problem-solve ongoing problematic behavior
- Teach prosocial replacement behaviors
- Promote academic achievement
- Serve as a deterrent to suspension
When implementing the Positive Alternative to Suspension Program in the districts they serve, Boys Town found an overall reduction in suspension days. For example, Pratt notes that Omaha Public Schools achieved a 23% reduction in the total number of suspension days, a 43% reduction in students earning multiple suspensions, a 78% reduction in special education student suspensions, and a 40% reduction in minority student suspensions.
Similar to in-school suspension, the Boys Town program removes students from class, but with the specific goal of learning new skills for a successful return to the classroom. This requires teachers to hold high expectations for students and show low tolerance for behaviors that typically occur in the in-school suspension environment. Students are expected to engage and participate in the activities that help them identify their behaviors that resulted in suspension and learn an appropriate replacement behavior.
High Expectations, Low Tolerances
To achieve a positive school culture with high expectations and low tolerance for misbehavior, faculty and staff use tools such as reflective essays and teaching specific skills to help students process the events that led to their suspension, practice replacement skills and target skill and performance deficits.
Reflective essays and writing activities prompt students to think critically about what happened and what they can do differently in the future. “We have found that taking a behavioral approach and teaching social skills gets us the best results,” says Pratt.
Think Sheet writing templates are a proactive strategy for a multi-tiered response to student behavior. Students are prompted to think about what they can do to prevent the current situation from recurring and consider what good things might occur when they make different decisions.
Focusing on increasing the use of prosocial behaviors helps schools maintain a safe physical and emotional environment. Students also receive individualized plans. “They’re not cookie-cutter kids, so our plans for them shouldn’t be cookie-cutter plans,” says Pratt.
This article was featured in the January 2022 issue of SREB School Improvement’s Promising Practices Newsletter.