Schools are suspending and expelling students at alarming rates. Data show that boys, students of color, and students with disabilities are significantly overrepresented in school discipline rates (U.S. Department of Education, 2014). This gap raises the issue of racial discrimination in school discipline. Students of color and boys often receive harsher treatment for similar misbehaviors or offenses by their peers.
The process of reforming discipline involves creating a positive climate in schools, which also helps all students learn (Colombi & David, 2015). Removing students from the classroom (such as for suspensions) makes it difficult for students to reconnect and catch-up academically when they return to class, which can lead to other misbehaviors.
Avoiding exclusionary discipline minimizes the negative effects related to poor school climate, continued poor behavior, loss of instructional time, poor academic achievement, higher dropout rates and greater involvement with juvenile justice systems (Colombi & Osher, 2015).
Using Asset-Based Strategies
Pro-active districts, campuses and teachers use asset-based strategies to create a culture of connectivity and care where all members of the school community can thrive. This is especially needed for students who have been harmed by these prior disciplinary practices or those who have harmed others and received disciplinary actions.
Rather than placing blame and sanctioning students, educators must seek to understand the situation and any harm that has resulted. They then use this knowledge to resolve the situation equitably, seeking to restore relationships among students, teachers and school leaders (McCluskey, et al., 2008).
Critical Role of District Leadership
Teachers have the closest interaction with students. However, restorative practices are most effective when district and campus leaders initiate reforms along with teachers. Districts can begin by reviewing their student codes of conduct to ensure that the language is not ambiguous (or subject to multiple interpretations) and that it is inclusive and equitable in recommended practices.
At the same time, school leaders and educators must focus on creating an inclusive school climate for all students, including suspended students when they return to the campus. Effective leadership supports the critical role of the teachers throughout this process. These restorative school discipline practices focus on (re)establishing relationships and repairing harm as opposed to just punishment for misbehavior. The process focuses on building empathy through strategies, such as conferencing, classroom discussions and peacemaking circles (Teaching Tolerance, 2015).
School leaders must be aware of racial bias in school discipline. This can begin with a review of discipline practices and district data. Data may reveal higher numbers of incidents for students of color, boys and students with disabilities. The IDRA EAC-South has many years of experience working with districts during this process. Examples of technical assistance and training available through the IDRA EAC-South include the following.
- Assess discipline policies and practices, make recommendations to reduce loss of learning time, and achieve improved school climate and equity for all students;
- Collaborate on equity plans to address civil rights compliance issues;
- Provide professional development to school leaders and educators on cultural competency and implicit bias, and co-create train-the-trainer models;
- Co-develop and assist with the implementation of school desegregation plans; and
- Develop tools that monitor and assess the success of district and school improvement plans.
For example, the IDRA EAC-South worked closely with one school district in revising its student code of conduct. In use for over a year now, the new code uses a system of tiered behaviors. As a result, the district shows a gain of almost 1,300 days of individual student instruction from the previous year. There has been no use of corporal punishment, down from 24 cases the previous year. There also was a decrease in out-of-school suspensions and referrals to an alternative school.
Positive School Climate with Restorative Discipline
Restorative discipline builds positive school climates that value all students. The goal is to develop welcoming learning environments that are inclusive of all students and foster relationships within the school community. Children experience four fundamental needs as they transition to adolescence: having others welcome them into a group and developing a sense of belonging; making contributions and earning respect; feeling appreciated; and having close, stable relationships (Hamburg, 1998). With these needs fulfilled, students thrive and are more likely to engage in constructive classroom participation.
Teachers can take steps to meet these needs by demonstrating genuine interest in each student and taking notice of the effort and progress they make. Students know when teachers are really interested in what they are saying (Smith, et al., 2015). Therefore, it is important that we know how to show students that we truly care about them and their success. The following key practices can help reassure students that they are part of a community:
- Know their names. This seems like a given, and perhaps it should be, but knowing our students’ names and referring to them by name frequently is a simple but vital way to begin to build a relationship.
- Take notice of absent students and connect with them when they return. They may have important information to share that could be helpful to you as their teacher. Take the time to welcome them back and let them know they were missed. This small act shows them that you value their participation in the learning process.
- Show support in their afterschool activities. It is very tempting to go home after a long day of classes. Try to attend some activities occasionally. Go to a basketball game, chess tournament or school play. You will get to see your students’ interests. They will see one of their teachers supporting them. If you cannot attend, talk to your students about their activities outside of your classroom. Encourage all your students to seek out activities and peer groups they feel connected to.
- Chat with them frequently, beyond small talk. Beyond “hi” and “how are you?” try to learn enough about each student to strike up a real conversation. Doing so helps your students feel important and cared for. These conversations can also inform the topics you bring into instruction.
Strong relationships with students build empathy in both parties. This makes it harder to treat others in rude or disrespectful ways (Smith, et al., 2015). Restorative discipline has the power to prevent discipline issues and build positive relationships. It is helpful for discussions during times of conflict. Students learn to use this model with peers, their families and other adults in their lives. This life skill promotes social, emotional, and academic growth.
For IDRA EAC-South assistance please contact us through http://www.idraeacsouth.org/ or call 210-444-1710.
Colombi, G., & Osher, D. (2015). Advancing School Discipline Reform – Education Leaders Report (Arlington, Va.: National Association of State Boards of Education).
Hamburg, D.A. (1998). “Preparing for Life – The Critical Transition of Adolescence,” in R. Muuss & H. Porton (Eds.), Adolescent Behavior and Society: A Book of Readings (4-10). Boston, Mass.: McGraw-Hill College.
McCluskey, G., Lloyd, G., Stead, J., Kane, J., Riddell, S., & Weedon, E. (2008). “‘I Was Dead Restorative Today’ – From Restorative Justice to Restorative Approaches in School,” Cambridge Journal of Education, 38(2), 199-216.
Office for Civil Rights. (2014). Civil Rights Data Collection – Data Snapshot: School Discipline (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Education).
Smith, D., Fisher, D., & Frey, N. (2015). Better than Carrots or Sticks: Restorative Practices for Positive Classroom Management (Alexandria, Va.: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development).
Teaching Tolerance. (2015). Code of Conduct: A Guide to Responsive Discipline (Montgomery, Ala.: Teaching Tolerance).
U.S. Department of Education. (2014). Guiding Principles – A Resource Guide for Improving School Climate and Discipline (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Education).
Kristin Grayson, Ph.D., is an IDRA education associate. Comments and questions may be directed to her via email at email@example.com. Paula Johnson, M.A., is an IDRA education associate. Comments and questions may be directed to her via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
[©2018, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the January 2018 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]