George Lucas Educational Foundation
Restorative Practices

3 Alternatives to Assigning Detention

Developing relationships with students to help them make positive choices requires planning and patience, but the work pays off.

February 2, 2022
Administrator talks to student in her office
Phynart Studio / iStock

There may be times when you have reached the end of your patience with a student’s behavior. They may disrupt learning or repeat a negative behavior too many times. What do we do as teachers in these scenarios? Sometimes the simple answer is assigning detention.

Yet detention is not an effective discipline tool for some students, and in fact it might increase the recurrence of negative behavior. Detention and other punitive measures, like suspensions and expulsions, can contribute to other issues, such as recidivism among students, despite harsher or longer punishments. These measures have the potential to increase apathy and defiance. They can jeopardize teachers’ and staff’s efforts to build relationships and trust. Finally, they can have a negative effect on a student’s academic performance.

There is evidence of racial and ethnic disparities among students assigned to detention. In 2014, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights sent a letter to educators outlining the disparities and offering alternatives to detention and suspension. Instead of detention, the DOE recommends restorative practices and positive interventions, such as counseling.

There may be severe circumstances that require removing a student from the school environment and placing them on off-campus suspension, such as hitting, fighting, threatening, or verbal assault. But before submitting a detention referral form for minor, day-to-day offenses, consider these three alternatives.

Reflection

One suggestion is to create a reflection room in place of one for detention. In it, teachers, administrators, caregivers, and the student go through a reflective process to understand the root cause of a conflict and assist the student in understanding and identifying better options. Reflective practices teach students what actions they can take in the future when confronted with difficult situations.

As a middle school assistant principal, I recently had two students referred to me for pushing each other during recess. As I spoke with each of the students individually, I realized they had very different perspectives on what had occurred. “I tripped and landed on him. Really!” versus “He deliberately ran into me!”

These two students needed to learn how to see a situation from another person’s point of view. They each wrote a narrative description of the scuffle as if they were the other person. I followed up with each student separately, and both realized that perhaps they had misinterpreted the other person’s intentions. After writing a reflection, there’s no guarantee that they will never push each other again. But maybe they’ll take a moment to consider what the other person is thinking before they react physically.

Logical Consequences

If you are familiar with the concept of the Responsive Classroom, you might have heard about logical consequences. Instead of harsh punishment, the teacher gently instructs the student on how to correct their errors.

At the end of the discussion, students become empowered because the teacher assists them in reaching epiphanies like “When I knock things down, I have to help build them back up,” “I can fix things when I mess up,” or “My teacher helps me solve problems.” If a student leaves a mess at the lunch table, the obvious next step is to clean it up. Please keep in mind that this is not a suggestion to assign illogical chores, such as “You forgot your homework, now scrape gum off the sidewalk.”

The tone of the teacher is critical when using logical consequences. It should convey problem-solving and learning rather than anger or frustration. Maintaining students’ dignity is essential for assisting them in learning from an experience.

Logical consequences do not always have to be negative. When students make thoughtful decisions that result in good outcomes, note it. Ask your school administration if they will accept “positive office referrals” in which a teacher refers a student for helpful behaviors. How cool would it be if your students routinely wondered, “Is she there for a positive referral?” whenever the principal called a student out of class.

Restorative Practices

Restorative practices, in a nutshell, teach students how to right the wrongs they have caused. They provide alternatives to using punishment and build healthier learning communities. To quote Arkansas principal Chelsea Jennings, “Kids who are frequently in trouble are often testing a system that has repeatedly failed them, but a restorative approach says ‘we are not giving up on you.’”

If a student disrespects another student or staff member in words or actions, how can that student attempt to repair the harm done? A science teacher at our school implemented this approach when a student disrupted her class. The teacher informed the student that her disruptive behavior had taken away instructional time, and as a result, the student would have to help the teacher recoup some of the lost time by assisting with the prep for the next lab before school. Even if the student thought that prepping for a lab was enjoyable or fun, that student was fulfilling the spirit of the consequence: making up for the lost time.

Peer conflict resolution assists students in working to repair the harm done to another student. Students can be taught conflict resolution with the help of a faculty member or counselor. If a student uses a slur or disrespectful language, that student should investigate why that language is harmful. By conducting research first, the offending student can craft a more sympathetic and informed apology to the victim.

An example of this is a middle school student who made a racially insensitive joke. From speaking with the student, it was clear that he did not know the joke was offensive. He was repeating what he had read on the internet. After doing some research on the origins of the joke, the student realized why it was hurtful and sincerely apologized.

There would be no growth, no new understanding, no repairing of harm, if I simply assigned him detention.

The alternatives suggested above are not quick and easy. Some people will object, fearing that restorative practices are letting students off easy or with just a slap on the wrist. These are valid concerns, but one important point to remember is that restorative practices are preventive actions based on relationships.

Building the relationships necessary to guide students toward positive choices requires creativity, planning, and a lot of patience. So why do it? It pays off when students’ behavior improves and the community becomes a more positive environment.

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