From One Extreme to the Other: Changing School Policy from “Zero Tolerance” to “Total Tolerance” Will Not Work

Decreasing Disproportionate Discipline Referrals and Suspensions Requires Changing Student and Staff Behavior

Dear Colleagues,

As we begin the new school year, many districts and schools are appropriately focused on school discipline and classroom management- - helping their students to understand (and, hopefully, abide by) “the school rules.”

In this context, many states and school districts have revamped their student “Codes of Conduct” since last year- - some to address the fact that their previous school discipline processes were disproportionately sending students of color and with disabilities to the office for “discipline,” as well as suspending, expelling, or putting them into alternative programs.

This, in fact, has become a national movement as many states and large urban school districts move away from the failed “Zero Tolerance” approaches of the past.

But in their place, many states and districts have “moved the pendulum” too far to the other extreme. Indeed, some have:

  • Eliminated school suspensions at some age levels;
  • Simplistically endorsed “one size fits all” restorative justice and peer mediation programs;
  • Ignored needed teacher and staff training and coaching; and
  • Failed to increase the resources required to address the social, emotional, behavioral, and mental health intervention needs of some students.

Most critically: In re-booting their discipline approaches, many states and districts have largely overlooked the social, emotional, and behavior research-to-practice- - (or have selectively attended to only parts of it). Specifically, they have missed the different underlying reasons why different students demonstrate behavioral challenges.

States and Districts have also ignored the fundamental difference between a “Discipline” and a “Behavioral” problem.

Briefly, a student with a Discipline problem generally has the social, emotional, and behavioral skills needed for success- - he or she simply chooses not to demonstrate them (at times, in certain settings, under certain circumstances).

Thus, when a disciplinary response is strategically linked to the inappropriate behavior, this student will be motivated to decrease or eliminate future discipline problems, replacing the inappropriate with appropriate behavior.

In contrast, a student with a Behavioral problem generally has (a) an underlying reason (e.g., a physical, physiological, biochemical condition) that interferes with his/her ability to behave appropriately, or (b) s/he has not learned or mastered certain interpersonal, social problem solving, conflict prevention or resolution, or emotional coping skills.

Given this “skill deficit,” you can send this student to the office all you want, you can suspend this student all you want, or you can put this student into an alternative program as many times that you want. . . .

You can’t motivate a student out of a Skill Deficit.

That is, all of the incentives, consequences, or punishments (remember that approximately 40% of our states still allow corporal punishment) in the world will not change this student’s behavior-- this student cannot perform the desired behavior.

This student needs social, emotional, or behavioral instruction and/or intervention.

What Happens When the “Unscientific” Pendulum Swings Back Too Far?

Based on districts across the country who, in past years, changed their discipline policies from “Zero Tolerance” to “Total Tolerance”- - we know that this has not worked.

  • It has not worked because the number of office discipline problems have decreased, but student disproportionality has not.
  • It has not worked because no one has demonstrated that the drop in discipline problems is due to decreases in student misbehavior- - rather than policy-driven decreases in teachers’ referrals to the office.
  • It has not worked because no one has demonstrated that the drop in discipline problems- - if due to decreases in student misbehavior- - has been accompanied by increases in appropriate student classroom behavior.
  • It has not worked because no one has demonstrated that the drop in discipline problems- - if due to decreases in student misbehavior- - has been accompanied by increases in students’ classroom engagement and prosocial skills.
  • It has not worked because no one has demonstrated that the teachers are more skilled in classroom management, and in creating and sustaining positive classroom climates.
  • It has not worked because no one has demonstrated that the teachers are more culturally-sensitive and responsive to- - or skilled with- - students of color and with disabilities.
  • In summary, it has not worked because no one has demonstrated that the drop in discipline problems is not a statistical mirage or artifact- - whose goal is to assuage public pressure and perception, as opposed to improving classroom climate and students’ self-management skills.

Said a different way: while some states and districts have reported decreases in office discipline referrals and school suspensions, this does not mean (until demonstrated with data) that their classrooms are more positive and orderly, their students are more engaged and behaviorally skilled, or their teachers are more culturally- and disability-aware and competent.

And What are Our Teachers Saying?

In a recent Education Week article [CLICK HERE to View], it was reported that the leaders of some teachers’ unions have criticized the “Zero Tolerance to Total Tolerance” changes that have occurred across the country- - citing, especially, the lack of teacher training and support.

For example, in Indianapolis- - just about a year after the Indianapolis school district implemented a new discipline code focused on decreasing student suspensions- - a survey of 274 teachers (13% of the district’s teachers) found that:

  • Over 60% of the teachers felt that they had not received enough information about the new discipline policy;
  • 61% felt that they had not received enough training on the district's new Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS) system; and
  • 41% said that they did not feel supported when dealing with student-behavior problems.

All of this potentially impacts these teachers’ confidence in their classroom management. . . and we all know what challenging students can do when they see staff who are not confident in their ability to teach.

In a New York Daily News editorial, Michael Mulgrew, the president of New York City's United Federation of Teachers, reacted to a new District policy that banned suspensions for all Kindergarten through Grade 2 students and discouraged student suspensions at all other grade levels.

He stated:

"Too often, Tweed (referring to the City’s Department of Education offices at Tweed Courthouse) adopts policies without understanding how they will play out in schools and then ignores its responsibility for turning policy into reality. Past promises for training and support have not arrived at many schools.
The 'zero tolerance' policies of the previous administration clearly did not work. . . They never led to a nurturing school culture or even-handed discipline. . . (however,) a 180-degree pivot banning suspensions makes no sense."

Mulgrew’s piece made some appropriate and sound recommendations: Training staff on how to de-escalate students in crises, and requiring schools to form pupil personnel teams to work with students with behavioral issues.

A Recommended Tool to Increase Student Accountability, and Decrease Disproportionality

I have discussed ways to decrease the disproportionate office referrals and suspensions/expulsions of students of color and with disabilities in past blogs. In doing this, I have focused on:

  • Systemic Change and State Statutes [CLICK HERE]
  • State and District Changes [CLICK HERE]
  • School Superintendents [CLICK HERE]
  • And even Preschoolers [CLICK HERE]

I have also recently discussed [CLICK HERE] the five evidence-based components of school discipline, classroom management, and student self-management:

  • Staff, Student, and Parent Relationships that establish Positive School and Classroom Climates
  • Explicit Classroom and Common School Area Expectations supported by Social, Emotional, and Behavioral Skill/Self-Management Instruction (that are embedded in preschool through high school "Health, Mental Health, and Wellness" activities)
  • School-wide and Classroom Behavioral Accountability systems that include Motivational Approaches reinforcing "Good Choice" behavior
  • Consistency--in the classroom, across classrooms, and across staff, time, settings, and situations
  • Applications of the above across all Settings in the school, and relative to the Peer Group interactions (specifically targeting teasing, taunting, bullying, harassment, hazing, and physical aggression)

In this Blog, I would like to briefly expand the Accountability component above, and describe a school/classroom resource- - The Behavioral Matrix.

Critically: Accountability is defined as “being willing to accept responsibility for one’s actions, and act on that responsibility.”

While it is important for students (and others) to accept responsibility for their social, emotional, and behavioral actions and interactions after they have done something wrong. . . from a self-management perspective, it is more important that they act responsibly before a specific social or academic interaction.

To facilitate this, students need a framework (or roadmap) that identifies expected positive, prosocial behaviors in different school settings, and different levels of inappropriate behavior. This not only helps them to learn and demonstrate expected behaviors, but also to understand that some inappropriate behaviors are more serious than others. Collectively, this is what the Behavioral Matrix is all about.

The Behavioral Matrix is essentially a “behavioral standards” document with explicit expectations that students are taught and held accountable to. The explicit goal of the Behavioral Matrix is to create a positive, responsive, school-wide accountability system that results in high levels of positive and prosocial classroom engagement and school safety, progressively higher levels of self-managed student behavior, and low (or non-existent) levels of negative student interactions and office discipline referrals.

The implicit goal of the Behavioral Matrix is to maximize the consistency needed to accomplish the outcomes above—across students, staff, and administration.

Critically, the Behavioral Matrix is developed and implemented, with administrator, student, and parent input, by each grade-level team in a school. This is done because students at different age levels have different levels of social, emotional, and behavioral development, and these differences- - in a classroom and school- - need to be accounted for.

At the same time, the typical Middle School has a 6th grade Matrix, and an integrated 7th/8th grade Matrix. The typical High School has a 9th grade Matrix, and an integrated 10th through 12th grade Matrix.

Once developed, the Behavioral Matrix is taught to all students- - on the first day and week of each new school year.

Thereafter, school staff and students implement and reinforce it with integrity and consistency- - so that it becomes internalized by both students and staff.

In the end, the Behavioral Matrix- - when connected with the other Self-Management components briefly described above- - results in students who are skilled and motivated to demonstrate prosocial behavior on the “plus” side. On the “minus” side, the Matrix results in (a) low levels of inappropriate behavior; (b) consistent responses by the staff when different intensity levels of inappropriate behavior do occur; and (c) students who understand that they will be consistently held accountable for their inappropriate behavior

Significantly, when developed collaboratively by a grade-level team, teachers need to come to a consensus as to (a) what behavioral expectations to teach and emphasize to their students, (b) how to organize different inappropriate behaviors across the four intensity levels (e.g., blurting out answers, getting out of seat without permission, throwing objects, teasing, taunting, bullying, harassment, physical aggression), (c) how to most effectively respond to different intensity levels of behaviors, and (d) how to address specific or unique behavioral situations in strategic ways.

These staff also recognize that the Behavioral Matrix focuses on students’ Discipline Problems (see above). Thus, when students do not respond to Matrix-driven actions at a serious, persistent, or severe level, they are referred to a Pupil Personnel Team to determine if they have a Behavioral Problem that requires strategic or intensive behavioral intervention.

Structurally, the Behavioral Matrix has four quadrants (see the figure below). The latter two quadrants, which focus on inappropriate behavior and their responses, are subdivided into four additional linked sections.


Image title

More specifically, the quadrants include:

  • Explicitly described Classroom Behavioral Expectations for each grade-level in the school, along with universal, school-wide expectations for the school’s different common areas. These are connected with setting-specific Positive Responses, Incentives, and Rewards.
  • Four different Intensity Levels of Inappropriate Student Behavior, connected with research-based Corrective Responses, Consequences, and/or Administrative Responses, respectively. These are all grade-level and classroom-specific.
  • Intensity I describes specific Annoying Behaviors. These are responded to with teacher-delivered Corrective Responses that prompt the student’s awareness, and cue the student to self-correct.
  • Intensity II describes specific Classroom Disruptive Behaviors. These are responded to with teacher-delivered Classroom-based Consequences, followed by some type of remediation or resolution of the situation and positive practices of the expected behavior that should have occurred.
  • Intensity III describes specific Major Disruption or Antisocial Behaviors. These result in an office referral, but the consequence is largely directed by the classroom teacher so that students remain accountable to that teacher. Remediation or restorative practices follow, along with positive practice of the prosocial behavior expected in the future. [Parenthetically, this is the only appropriate place, use, and context for restorative justice practices.]
  • Intensity IV describes specific Dangerous or “Code of Conduct” Behaviors. These require an immediate referral to the principal, and an Administrative Response- - again, followed by remediation, restorative practices, and positive practice of the expected behavior.

Significantly, any time a student is sent to the office or an administrator decides to use in-school or out-of-school suspensions, a critical question is asked:

Will the consequences in the office or the in- or out-of-school suspension- - while an appropriate response to the inappropriate behavior, also act as an intervention to change the behavior?

If the answer is “No,” then the administrator must consider a referral to the Student Assistance or Pupil Personnel (Multidisciplinary) Team. At this level, assessments are completed to determine the underlying reason(s) for the inappropriate behavior. The assessment results then are linked to strategic or intensive interventions so that future social, emotional, or behavioral problems are eliminated.

Obviously, There is More . . .

Clearly, this Blog can only provide an introductory description to the goals, creation, implementation, and student and staff outcomes of the Behavioral Matrix, and how it enhances classroom management and student self-management. . . while decreasing unnecessary office referrals and disproportionality.

To provide a little more information, however, below is a 60-minute webinar- - specifically on the Behavioral Matrix- - that I presented nationally a few years ago.

Naturally, if you want more information on the Matrix process, feel free to contact me at


Relative to student misbehavior and disproportionality, there is no “silver bullet.” However, the state and district trend from Zero Tolerance to Total Tolerance simply will not work, and will set our schools further behind in the quest for student accountability and self-management.

The recommended approaches will take time to develop, implement, and sustain.

And, they do necessitate staff time, professional development, collaboration, and the understanding and use of behavioral science-to-practice.

But what is the alternative?

Moreover, how many years have we already wasted on:

  • Policies (e.g., zero tolerance) that we knew from the beginning- - scientifically- - would not work?
  • Frameworks (e.g. PBIS) that were never extensively field-tested, that schools implement by “picking off the menu,” and that recent studies [CLICK HERE] have demonstrated do not work?
  • Practices encouraged by colleagues (even authors and publishers) who have not been appropriately trained, that are not evidence-based, and that often fail- - resulting in worse student behavior and/or (at least) behavior that is more resistant to change when the “next” intervention is tried.

I hope that some of the ideas above resonate with you . . . and that you will explore both (a) the science of school discipline, classroom management, and student self-management; as well as (b) the potential benefits of the Behavioral Matrix process.

Please accept my best wishes during these early weeks of the school year.

And, as always, if I can help your school(s) or district in any of the areas related to these discussions, please do not hesitate to contact me.

Your comments are always welcome. Thanks for all that you do.