New Superintendents’ Survey: Suspensions Do NOT Change Behavior—What does?

School Discipline Policies and Practices, the Impact of Out-of-School Suspensions, and How to Rethink our Approaches for Greater Student Success

The Dilemma

While the school year typically begins in many positive ways— relative to student behavior, schools without effective school-wide discipline approaches and multi-tiered services and supports begin to see “old patterns” emerge around the middle of September. When students exhibit “Code of Conduct” offenses, it is often is necessary to suspend those students for a period of time.

Numerous national studies over the past year have reported that many of these students— disproportionately— are students from minority backgrounds and students with disabilities. With our nation’s schools now majority minority, this is concerning in and of itself. But, we will leave that discussion for another day.

For today, we want to pose a critical question when students need to be suspended (according to the Code of Conduct):

Will the suspension— while administratively appropriate— result in the ultimate, desired goal: to decrease and eliminate future inappropriate student behavior, resulting in an increase of appropriate behavior?

If the above goal is not met, then the suspension (while temporarily improving a school’s climate and other students’ academic engagement due to the absence of the student) has minimal long-term impact.

What do Superintendents’ Think?

In April 2014, the American Association of School Administrators (our country’s primary professional association of school superintendents) and the Children’s Defense Fund conducted a national survey of 500 demographically-representative school superintendents to determine their district-wide school discipline policies and practices, and the impact and why their used out-of-school suspensions (OSS).

Below are the highlights (with our comments) of what they found:

Survey Result. Maintaining safety and order in the school building was considered the primary purpose of an OSS; followed by communicating to students, parents, and teachers that the school is taking disciplinary issues seriously; and removing disruptions so that other students could learn.

Only 12% of superintendents identified the primary purpose of the OSS was to discourage future misconduct and to change future student behavior.

Response. While the primary purposes above are important, if student disruptions do not change, student learning continues to be impacted; and students, parents, and teachers end up feeling that administrators do not have solutions—even though they are taking discipline problems seriously.

If administrators know that a suspension, while appropriate, will not change a student’s behavior, they need to call on their Student Assistance Team (or the equivalent) which should be staffed with the best academic and behavioral assessment and intervention professionals in their school or district. This Team needs to functionally assess why a student is demonstrating social, emotional, or behavioral problems, and design and implement effective services, supports, interventions, or programs.

Survey Result. 40% of the superintendents said that insubordination, defiance, and failure to obey and disrespect of teachers and staff were the most common OSS infractions. 30% said that fighting was the most common infraction.

Response. While insubordination, defiance, and disrespect are problematic, they rarely rise to a level requiring an OSS. Many school districts do not have a school-wide accountability system that identifies how staff will address annoying (Intensity I) versus classroom disruption (Intensity II) versus antisocial (Intensity III) versus Code of Conduct (Intensity IV) behaviors. By connecting research-based responses focused on changing student behavior with these Intensities of inappropriate behavior, we have successfully addressed (or prevented) many of the problems above.

When fighting occurs, administrators could require the students involved (and, perhaps, their parents) to come to, for example, the district office on the first day of the suspension so that (a) the fight can be debriefed and analyzed; (b) preventative strategies can be identified, taught, and practiced in roleplay scenarios; and (c) other restorative or “action plan” interventions are organized. Once again, members of the Student Assistance Team are probably the professionals involved in this debriefing and intervention process. And again, the ultimate goal is to eliminate the potential of future fights, and to increase the students’ ability to get along with each other (or, at least, co-exist).

Survey Result. 92% of the superintendents believed that OSSs had negative consequences in their districts. 67% indicated that lost class time was the most significant consequence. As a result, 82% of the superintendents noted that suspended students were allowed to make up missed work and receive full credit for that work; 50% provided suspended students with access to tutoring or other academic assistance; and 19% reported that suspended students received one-on-one or small group instruction with a certified teacher during the suspension.

Response. A critical question here is: “How many students are behaviorally acting out because of academic frustration?” When students act out due to academic frustration, they are exhibiting behavioral problems NOT disciplinary problems. This distinction is important because an academic intervention has a higher probability changing these students’ behavior, as opposed to a disciplinary response.

Survey Response. 43% of urban and 38% of high poverty district superintendents believed that OSSs encouraged later student disengagement, absenteeism, truancy, and/or dropout rates.

Response. Research and practice support these beliefs. Many school districts have decreased their need for OSS, and implemented proactive and successful alternatives to OSS over the past number of years— through multi-tiered positive behavioral support systems with embedded school discipline, classroom management, and student self-management approaches.

Survey. 40% of the superintendents believed that social skills instruction— focusing on prosocial interpersonal skills, conflict prevention and resolution skills, social problem-solving skills, and emotional coping skills would have the greatest impact on reducing OSSs and improving school climate and school relationships. 38% cited the need for more mental health supports, counselors, or social workers; and 38% believed that additional training for teachers and staff was needed.

Response. A 2011 meta-analysis of over 200 studies investigating the impact of social skills training for all students as part of a kindergarten through high school “Health, Mental Health, and Wellness” program increased (a) positive school climates and safety; (b) positive student and staff relationships and interactions; (c) students’ social, emotional, and behavioral self-management and adjustment; and (d) students’ academic engagement and achievement. These approaches also decrease classroom discipline problems, and the need for office discipline referrals, and OSSs.

Summary and Update. There are approaches to address the concerns of school superintendents across the country relative to student discipline, disproportionality, and school suspensions. Over the past month, we have heard from schools across the country that we have worked with— some for over 10 years— that their test scores are up, their office discipline referrals are down, their schools are safer and more positive, and that they have sustained these successes over a number of years because we have helped them build the school-wide skills and capacity to do this on their own.

As many of you know, I spent much of last month in Montana working with an elementary through high school day and residential treatment facility for emotionally and behaviorally disabled students. Significantly, I spent the first two days of their school year on-site to help implement the strategies and supports that we developed during our before-school professional development days.

Based on data and debriefing discussions and surveys, the school year began with more student engagement, more positive interactions in the classrooms and common school areas (especially the hallways, cafeteria, and playground), there were virtually no incidents requiring the Time-out rooms, and no physical restraints reported. Overall, the staff felt more empowered and confident of their ability to succeed with these challenging students, and they demonstrated an exceptional level of dedication and independence in implementing the approaches that were planned and taught.

I hope that your new school year has had a very successful start. If there is anything I can do to help you move "to the next level of excellence," please do not hesitate to contact me.