What’s Missing in the Student Discipline Debate? Common Sense

What’s Missing in the Student Discipline Debate? Common Sense
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Rarely does a week go by without another heated opinion piece about school discipline. To suspend or not suspend, that is the question everyone wants to talk about.

Some argue for a drastic decrease in disciplinary actions due to disproportionate impact on students of color; others say the federal government should back off and let local schools suspend as they wish in the name of school safety.

What is missing from this debate? Some common sense.

The education community is attempting to solve a problem by addressing the punishment instead of the actual root of the problem.

Heading into the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights hearing next month on school discipline, we need to take a step back and look at what schools are doing to reduce behavior issues in the first place. Let me give you an example of a valuable lesson I learned while raising my children.

When my kids were younger, we often took long drives that led to the usual sibling bickering and distracting behavior that drove me to the brink of insanity. After initially resorting to threats that my kids dutifully ignored, I reflected on what I could change as the adult in the situation. I started to contemplate what was causing their behavior and how I could change my behavior in a way that would help them understand their role in helping us arrive at our destination safely. What could I do to change my behavior to influence theirs?

I realized that their misbehavior was not due to them being bad; rather, they were understandably bored and anxious to get to our destination and be released from their constricting car seats.

I decided on our next drive to inform them that from this point forward, anytime they misbehaved in the car, I was going to pull the car over, safely of course, and that I would not start driving again until they behaved. And the next time they misbehaved, that is exactly what I did.

My children were puzzled and asked me what I was doing. I calmly said that their behavior was a distraction to my driving—and my sanity—and I would start the car back up once they behaved appropriately. The car quickly grew silent and I began driving again.

We went through this routine a few times before I successfully taught them to understand our mutual goals and their role in ensuring we would arrive at our destination safely and sanely. Collectively, we all realized that we were in control of our respective behaviors and we removed the drama associated with me attempting to change their behavior mid-course.

This is the kind of thinking we need when it comes to school discipline. Instead of just talking about discipline as relatively dichotomous, that is, too much or too little, or entering into unhelpful debates about whether we need to accept disproportionate discipline rates for students of color and students with disabilities as the cost of “maintaining order,” we need a more nuanced exploration of the underlying issues leading to the professed need to punitively discipline students.

These discussions must be grounded in exploring what educators and school leaders are doing to prevent disruptive behavior issues in the first place. Simply suspending students absent an examination of cause is a band-aid solution that sets both schools and students up for repeated failure.

I recently visited two schools, Thrive Public Schools in San Diego and Haven Academy in the Bronx, and saw firsthand how creating a positive learning environment for students decreases problematic behavior. Here are a few examples: Proactively examining patterns of behavior to understand underlying causes; providing focused and appropriate academic supports so students can experience success; and leveraging programs such as Responsive Classroom and Restorative Justice to create a consistent and student-focused school culture that prioritizes creating relationships and classroom environments that enable students with diverse learning needs to succeed. These practices and others can create an environment that is both orderly and inclusive and that significantly reduces the need to exclude students for disciplinary reasons.

This is how to address behavior issues at school. Discipline is not the issue – it is a symptom of the issue – and it certainly is not a long-term answer to say “more” or “less” discipline is the answer. That is a false choice.

We have a responsibility to provide school administrators and teachers with the tools and space to reflect on the cause of the behavior – to pull their “car” off the road. By doing that instead of arguing about discipline, we could make significant progress towards the ultimate goal of optimizing schools’ learning environments and achieving our academic performance goals for all students.

Lauren Morando Rhim is the Executive Director of the National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools. Ms. Rihm will provide testimony at the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights Hearing on school discipline taking place December 8, 2017.

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