2013-03-26 08:00:00

Secret to Fixing School Discipline? Change Adult Behavior

If fixing school discipline were a political campaign, the slogan would be, “It’s the Adults, Stupid!”

A sea change is coursing slowly but resolutely through this nation’s K-12 education system. More than 23,000 schools out of 132,000 nationwide have or are discarding a highly punitive approach to school discipline in favor of supportive, compassionate, and solution-oriented methods. Those that take the slow-but-steady road can see a 20% to 40% drop in suspensions in their first year of transformation. A few — where the principal, all teachers and staff embrace an immediate overhaul — experience higher rates, as much as an 85% drop in suspensions and a 40% drop in expulsions. Bullying, truancy, and tardiness are waning. Graduation rates, test scores and grades are trending up.

The formula is simple, really: Instead of waiting for kids to behave badly and then punishing them, schools are creating environments in which kids can succeed. “We have to be much more thoughtful about how we teach our kids to behave, and how our staff behaves in those environments that we create,” says Mike Hanson, superintendent of Fresno (CA) Unified School District, which began a district-wide overhaul of all of its 92 schools in 2008.

This isn’t a single program or a short-term trend or a five-year plan that will disappear as soon as the funding runs out. Where it’s taken hold, it’s a don’t-look-back, got-the-bit-in-the-teeth, I-can’t-belieeeeeve-we-used-to-do-it-the-old-way type of shift.

The secret to success doesn’t involve the kids so much as it does the adults: Focus on altering the behavior of teachers and administrators, and, almost like magic, the kids stop fighting and acting out in class. They’re more interested in school, they’re happier and feel safer.

“We’re changing the behavior of the adults on campuses, changing how they respond to poor behavior on kids’ part,” says Mary Ann Carousso, head of student services for Kings Canyon Unified School District in Central California, which launched a five-year plan in 2010 to revamp the district’s 20 schools.

This movement began about a dozen years ago, and has gained momentum in the last five years. The first schools to yank themselves free of the knee-jerk punitive response to bad behavior did so based on two unrelated developments.

First, suspensions and expulsions soared to ridiculous levels. By 2007, a stunning one-quarter of all public high school students had been suspended at least once during their school careers, according to a National Center for Education Statistics 2011 report. The numbers were worse for boys of color. One-third of Hispanic boys and 57% of black boys had been kicked out of school at least once.

Further, the report noted that more than three million kids are suspended or expelled each year — in 2006 that number was 3,430,830. In California, 464,050 children were kicked out of school that year, many more than once, for a total of more than 800,000 suspensions and expulsions.

The acceleration began with the adoption of broad zero-tolerance policies that spread like a prairie fire across the United States in 1995, just one year after the U.S. Congress passed the Gun-Free Schools Act of 1994. Once “zero tolerance” was locked in, teachers and principals warped it, some say, by the pressure to perform well on tests. Kick the troublemakers out, and there’s less disruption and interruption in class. With those underperforming kids gone, test scores look better.

Here’s the absurd part: Only five percent of these suspensions or expulsions were for weapons or drugs. The other 95 percent? “Disruptive behavior” and “other”. This includes cell phone use, violation of dress code, talking back to a teacher, bringing scissors to class for an art project, giving Midol to a classmate, and, in at least one case, farting.

But punishment doesn’t change behavior; it just drops hundreds of thousands of flailing kids into a school to prison pipeline. The ka-ching to us taxpayers is $292,000 per dropout over his or her lifetime due to costs for more police, courts, and prisons, plus loss of income and taxes into our civic treasuries.

“Suspensions and expulsions don’t work,” says Javier Martinez, principal of Le Grand High School, Le Grand, CA. His approach is: “How do I help student overcome a problem so that it doesn’t happen again?”

“You can’t punish a behavior out of a kid,” says Jen Caldwell, a social worker at El Dorado Elementary School in San Francisco, CA. “The old-school model of discipline comes from people who think kids intentionally behave badly.”

Joseph Arruda, learning director at Reedley High School in Reedley, CA, shakes his head: “Suspending, expelling… that’s the old way.”

“It’s hard on them and on the parents,” says Andre Griggs, after-school program coordinator at Le Grand High School. “It doesn’t help the overall education of student.”

The second driver for change crept in sideways from educators who were teaching children with behavior disorders, from programs created to help kids deal with violence (particularly shootings) in and around their schools, and from restorative justice practices developed for the criminal justice system. Teachers and principals who saw the harm of zero tolerance finally had some alternatives to kicking kids out of class. All the methods focused the social and emotional lives of children, such as teaching children respect, empathy, and coping skills. Equipped with their own conflict resolution skills, teachers could defuse most situations in their classrooms instead of sending disruptive kids to the principal’s office.

The methods now have names such as PBIS (Positive Behavioral Intervention and Support), Safe & Civil Schools, CBITS (Cognitive Behavioral Intervention for Trauma in Schools), restorative justice, trauma-sensitive schools, and HEARTS (Healthy Environments and Response to Trauma in Schools). They all focus first on changing what teachers and administrators do. Once that’s done, most children’s behavior begins to fall into place.

PBIS is now in more than 18,000 schools nationwide, 500 in California. Safe & Civil Schools is in 5,000 schools nationwide, including several hundred in California. All public schools in Los Angeles use CBITS, San Francisco Unified School District has collaborated with HEARTS to train all of their schools’ mental health coordinators in trauma-sensitive practices, and dozens of schools up and down the state use restorative justice practices. In schools that use the programs, words like “de-escalate”, “solidify a relationship”, “develop trust”, and “teachable moments” slide off the tongues of teachers and administrators as they help students recognize, understand, and regulate their behavior, as well as ask for help.

In some schools, principals, teachers and staff embrace the changes wholeheartedly, and reserve expulsions and suspensions for carrying weapons and selling drugs, required by law. But some schools tiptoe into the change, and still enforce an automatic suspension or expulsion on kids who fight or are caught using drugs, including alcohol. In other schools, with teachers or principals who don’t believe in a compassionate approach and who still think that a heavy hand works best, little changes.

Overall, U.S. schools still lose millions of children that needn’t be lost. In California, for example, although suspensions and expulsions have dropped 12% — more than 100,000 — between 2006 and 2011, there were still more than 700,000 suspensions and expulsions during the 2010-2011 school year.

Jane Ellen Stevens is the founder and editor of ACEsTooHigh.com  You can read this article in its entirety here.

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