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Stop Punishing Children with Their Education

I hope you were as alarmed as I was when you read the recent Washington Post article on the increasing numbers of young children being suspended from school. We are sending the wrong message to these students--a message that diminishes the value of education. When it comes to creating discipline systems, we should have one vision that does not punish students by withholding learning and their education. And I know we can achieve that vision because I've seen it done.

Never doubt the creativity and determination of a group of teachers, education support professionals, and administrators in creating a pathway to that vision. In the early 90's, I had the opportunity to lead a design team at Daniels Middle School in Raleigh, North Carolina, to do just that. Through a site-based decision-making process, this faculty came together to create a discipline system that cut suspensions in half and shifted the punishment to time and isolation rather than withholding students' education and grades.

The program was called SUCCESS. It was funded by eliminating the in- school suspension program and redirecting those funds to a progressive discipline model with a full-time coordinator. This coordinator was an excellent teacher and very skilled in classroom management. The program was embraced by each individual student, parent, teacher, administrator, and the Progressive Discipline Coordinator (PDC) through their signatures on a commitment pact distributed to and returned by 800 students. There were five interventions that made up this new system:

In-Class Success: We made it clear to the students that the most successful place for them was in the classroom learning and behaving. Each teacher had classroom rules and consequences developed jointly with her or his students. When the student demonstrated that s/he could not be successful in class, that student progressed to the next intervention.

In-Team Success: Every class had an extra desk strategically located for any student who progressed to this intervention. Each teacher was paired with another teacher for referrals. The referred student went into the partner teacher's classroom, sat at the special desk, completed a form describing why the referral was made, and then stated what his/her intention would be the next time a problem arose. Then the student designed a lesson based on what was occurring in the base classroom and completed and received a grade for that lesson. Now, I know many of you might ask why another teacher would want to deal with this student who had misbehaved. The answer is that there was no misbehavior because if there were, the next intervention was immediately engaged.

Small-Group Success: This intervention resulted in isolation with the PDC. The assistant principal escorted the student to his or her locker to get all textbooks and other materials and then to the small-group class. The student stayed there at least the rest of that day--and more days if needed--until the PDC believed the student could be successful in a regular classroom. The student was informed that the intervention could be as short as one day or as long as the rest of the year. It depended on the student's behavior and commitment to learning. The PDC designed the lessons and graded the student's work. The base teacher was required to accept the grade, but it could be weighted.

Extended-Day Success: We took a regular teaching position and switched the hours from the usual teacher day to a 10-5 time slot to create a position for someone who could oversee after-school work. This extended day teacher taught four classes rather than six and ran a two-hour extended day program for students who had been referred by any teacher for tardiness, unexcused absences, or wasting time in class. If a student skipped school, s/he had to make up twice as much time. How foolish is it to suspend a student who skips school? Trust me, if you give them double time, you will not have kids skipping school.

Out-of-school Success: We, the faculty, informed students that this last intervention was the least successful for them. We only used this for acts of violence. Every suspended student was required to take home learning packet(s) for each day. A parent or guardian had to sign a form affirming that the student had remained in the house from 8-3. The student had to bring completed packets back to the PDC for grading. Teachers could weight the grades, but they could not give zeroes. Do you know how much it takes to make up a zero? If students did not complete their packets, they were assigned to the extended day program until the packets were complete.

The results of this program were beyond our expectations. We cut our suspension rate in half. Student achievement improved. Teachers felt empowered and respected. The principal felt that he had a team that worked in the best interest of students and learning.

Students learned that being in the classroom behaving was their best choice. Students who misbehave are risk takers. A system that is embraced by all the adults and implemented strictly limits the opportunity for those risks and creates better patterns of appropriate behaviors.

There are so many other aspects to this program that I can't share in a limited blog format, but I hope I have given you an overview of a pathway to better discipline. Share your best practices to avoid punishing students with their education. Let's affirm that we will no longer support any system that does not value education.

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