ILLINOIS SCHOOL BOARD JOURNAL
Strategies for reducing suspensions
By David E. Bartz
David E. Bartz, Ph.D., is professor emeritus in the Department of Educational Leadership at Eastern Illinois University.
The requirements of Senate Bill 100 are prompting major changes in how schools address discipline, specifically punishment. In part, the bill is causing schools to focus on reducing suspensions, both in school and out of school. School personnel are scrambling to come up with ways to do so under the watchful eyes of board of education members and superintendents. School personnel in Illinois are not the only ones addressing the suspension issue. This is a national movement that some view as addressing the issue commonly known as the “school to prison pipeline.”
In Illinois, the group Voices of Youth in Chicago Education was instrumental in the establishment of Senate Bill 100. This “sweeping school discipline reform” took effect last fall after being signed into law, as Public Act 99-456, in 2015 by Governor Bruce Rauner.
I have studied suspensions for over 45 years. As an assistant junior high school principal of approximately 1,000 students in 1969-70, I was troubled because there were at least 100 suspensions, although there were fewer students actually suspended than the number of suspensions because of numerous repeat offenders. I was too caught up in the daily routine of the job to take time to be proactive, to figure out why the misbehaviors were occurring and how to change behaviors to reduce suspensions. This was my mistake. Since then, I have focused on what can be done to be proactive and minimize suspensions to the extent practicable.
From 1972 to 2006, I worked with school districts in Michigan, Missouri, Louisiana, Texas, Arkansas, and Illinois on matters pertaining to school desegregation, often including suspension issues. Based on these experiences, studying research and literature on suspensions over the years, and talking with building administration in Illinois; the following techniques are offered as considerations for addressing Senate Bill 100.
These techniques are classified into four categories: communication of standards; instruction, classroom management, and staff development; administration and human relations; and counseling. It is unlikely all of these suspension reduction techniques are appropriate for any given building or district. Hence, it is important to select from these techniques, based on local needs.
Communication of standards
Without effective communications, expectations for student behaviors are not clear and left to the imagination — and sometimes misinterpretation — of students, teachers, and parents. Clearly communicated behavioral expectations for students’ behaviors are a cornerstone of an effective and fair student discipline policy. The techniques listed here will be useful to school personnel:
- Classroom behavior expectations are communicated to all the students at the beginning of, and throughout, the school year in an understandable manner.
- Teachers, administrators, and other school personnel adhere to the belief that students prefer to be in their regular classroom rather than suspended.
- School rules are clearly spelled out to students in terms and examples understandable to them and in a constructive manner, and are reviewed regularly.
- Systematic and ongoing communication of standards takes place with parents/guardians of students and the general public.
- The administrative staff, counselors, and teachers are highly visible, particularly in unstructured situations (e.g., halls, cafeteria, and non-classroom areas where students congregate), to support proper behavior by their presence and verbal comments.
- The adults in the building act as models of good behavior and exemplify respect for other human beings.
- In the school’s mission statement, proper behavior and respect for the rights and property of others are included and emphasized.
- The school improvement plan for the building includes goals for student behavior and is readily communicated to students, staff, parents/guardians, and the general public.
- An action plan for reducing suspensions is established for the building on an annual basis. This action plan is developed by an instructional team composed of administrators, staff, counselors, teachers, support staff, students, and parents/guardians.
Instruction, classroom management, and staff development
The frontline of minimizing undesirable student behaviors is instruction that actively engages students in learning and builds positive teacher-student relationships. Effective classroom management creates a highly organized environment that prevents students from misbehaving through clear expectations and positive class identity. Staff development —especially for effective instruction and classroom management — is crucial to giving teachers the knowledge and skills to meaningfully engage students in learning and prevent undesirable behaviors. The techniques listed here will be beneficial to reducing undesirable student behaviors in the classroom.
- High expectations are held for all students, regardless of race or economic status.
- Teachers strive to establish a positive relationship with each student.
- The varied cultures of the student population are integrated into the curriculum to create a sense of “connectedness.”
- Instruction is provided for students concerning how to be responsible for their own behavior in the classroom and in other school environments.
- Teams of teachers are established to work with problem students and their families.
- Each problem student is assigned to a “friend at school” through a teacher-adviser system.
- Instruction is provided at a challenging, yet attainable, level for each student.
- Differentiated instruction is used appropriately to reach the unique learning needs of students.
- Emphasis is placed on teachers serving as models of proper behavior in the classroom.
- Teachers consistently support the school’s expectations for conduct from classroom to classroom.
- Teachers convey to students that each has self-worth and can behave properly.
- Teachers are proactive in preventing situations likely to prompt undesirable conduct.
- Teachers use positive reinforcers to reward proper behavior.
- Teachers create positive emotional energy in the classroom for students and themselves.
- The Response to Intervention ( RtI) behavioral component is research based, and staff are well trained in how to implement it.
- An ongoing staff development program is established in the areas of effective classroom management techniques and effective school practices.
- All staff development training is permeated with the theme of being sensitive to the unique individual differences of children.
- Staff development training is established that addresses the needs of at-risk students and includes solutions that will help meet these needs.
- Staff development takes place annually for all building personnel to review the student handbook and effective practices for preventing undesirable student behavior.
Administration and human relations
Principals are responsible for managing all aspects of the school’s discipline program and being able to see the “big picture” of its effectiveness and areas for needed adjustments. Paramount to the principal’s responsibility is a human relations approach that informs and involves stakeholders in ways in which they are likely to be supportive, as opposed to being critics, of the discipline program. The techniques listed here will aid in the reduction on student misbehaviors.
- Make sure the student handbook (code of conduct) is written in language easy to understand and gives examples.
- Be certain that all personnel and students have easy access to the student handbook (hard and electronic copies). Stress to everyone the importance of understanding its content.
- Furnish parents/guardians with a copy of the student handbook, and communicate to the media, in a positive manner, the purpose, intent, and content of the document. (Parent/guardian needs to sign off regarding receiving the student handbook.)
- Use social media if it is deemed as an effective means to communicate with parents/guardians, students, and the general public.
- Make sure the student handbook includes proper due process for students and protects their constitutional and civil rights. (Also stress to all school employees their responsibilities, through their actions, to assure students’ constitutional and civil rights are met.)
- Employ school personnel representative of the diversity of the student body in all job classifications.
- Have an information technology system that provides specific data on suspensions by race, grade, gender, source of referral, length of time, and other variables that will help profile suspension problems.
- Coordinate the services of the counselor, school psychologist, and social worker to identify and treat possible home problems that contribute to behavioral problems at school.
- Work with the police and other public agencies to gain insights into how to minimize gang activity at school, while also noting which students are going to, and returning from, school in groups and the groups in which they travel.
- Establish a preventative counseling program with the guidance and counseling staff to work pro-actively to reduce the negative behaviors of problem students. (It may be helpful to include the school psychologist.)
- Establish a tutorial program for students with academic needs along with a program designed to augment their coping abilities in school.
- Establish a study and academic skills center where students can receive individual assistance during the school day and after school.
- Plan a special orientation program for the grade level of students new to the building at the start of the school year that emphasizes their behavioral responsibilities.
- Work with the student council (student government) to assure that its activities are sensitive to, and inclusive of, all cultures, races, and students’ economic status.
- Develop a positive working relationship with law enforcement and other relevant governmental agencies.
- Make sure the selection of cheerleaders, student council members, and participants in other extracurricular activities is such that all races have an equal opportunity to be represented, and be certain that students who are ordinarily reluctant to participate are encouraged to do so.
- Through orientations, assemblies, and announcements, instill the school’s mission, culture, and past success stories.
- Establish an effective PTA, PTO, or other groups in which parents/guardians are meaningfully involved.
- Establish a parent/guardian information program that is separate from the PTA/PTO.
- Establish a recognition/rewards program for academics, good behavior, extracurricular activities, and attendance.
- Make sure that public relations and school-community relations programs reflect all racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic groups.
- Have a year-round program that systematically highlights different racial, ethnic, and cultural groups.
- Establish a committee or task force on multicultural education to assess the curriculum and identify ongoing needs, paying particular attention to sensitivity of staff to cultural differences.
- Establish a systematic and ongoing race relations program for students, staff, parents/guardians, and at times the community at large.
A counseling program that meets the needs of the student population can prevent many undesirable behaviors from initially occurring. Further, an effective counseling program coordinates services to address causes for unacceptable student behaviors and coordinates interventions to eliminate these behaviors. This is especially important for students with chronic behavior problems. The techniques listed here will aid in reducing undesirable student behaviors.
- Establish appropriate academic assignments for students.
- Create a drop-in time-out area for students with behavioral problems so they can be proactive in avoiding unacceptable behavior.
- Encourage students to partake in extracurricular activities and give them follow-up support.
- Establish a peer support group or “buddy” system for students with potential behavioral problems.
- Utilize “walking” or “roving” counselors in non-classroom areas to be available and identify students in need of counseling.
- Interface the social worker’s efforts and knowledge with the information base in school and with other school personnel and resources.
- Utilize the school psychologist to help identify the causes for unacceptable student behaviors and possible corrective actions.
- Develop partnerships with community mental health agencies.
- Work with special education staff to conduct a “Functional Behavioral Assessment” (FBA) analysis to hone in on what behaviors are specifically interfering with the student’s school performance.
Being proactive and preventive regarding what might go wrong, before it goes wrong, is paramount to effective discipline — on both an individual student and group basis. It is important school personnel view effective discipline as preventing students from misbehavior, as opposed to using the number of students caught misbehaving as the measure of effectiveness. Safe and orderliness are keystones to effective schools. These factors need to be at the forefront as school personnel address Senate Bill 100. Lastly, it is paramount that school personnel establishing positive relationships and truly caring about each student as a human being.
This article is based in part on previous work presented in Urban Education, Strategies for Reducing Suspension. Volume 24, Number 2, p.p. 163-176, July 1989.
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