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The Link Between Suspension and Dropout

Robyn Gee

Reporter / Blog Editor at Youth Radio.
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I remember the first student I ever suspended. He was 13 years old.

It started off as a minimal disruption. He was stealing pencils from other students at his table. That turned into breaking pencils. Then, stealing homework.

Determined not to let him derail the entire class, I changed his seat. I went over to him, and quietly said, "Can you tell me what's up? I know you can behave better than this." He swore at me in two languages.

I gave him a five-minute timeout in the hallway. He came back in and kept throwing and stealing. Finally, another student got so irritated that she threw a pencil back at him. And before I knew it, he had her in a headlock.

I didn't think twice. I just made him disappear for a week. I wasn't a seasoned teacher. I was a couple feet shorter than many of my students, and younger than many of their siblings.

It's hard for any teacher to see the big picture in every disciplinary action we take, and how it can impact a student's education. But it does.

I've been out of the classroom for three years now, and for the past year, I've been following teachers, students and school districts, trying to understand the latest research on school suspension and its effects down the line.

Understanding How Suspension Can Lead to Dropout

I met Robert last spring. He was a talkative, skinny kid with lots of energy. It was the end of his sixth grade year, and Robert had already been suspended three times. One more time, and he knew he would be expelled.

Students with a record like Robert's are at risk. He should be entering high school soon, but 49% of students who entered high school with three suspensions on their record eventually dropped out of school, according to "Sent Home and Put Off Track," a new report by Robert Balfanz of Johns Hopkins University.

And research shows that most students who get suspended end up getting suspended twice, causing some researchers to say that suspension is not an effective tool for changing behavior -- something that teachers can tell you instinctively.

Megan Macpherson stands at the front of her sixth grade classroom, 2012.

Credit: Robyn Gee

"It's been really hard to keep kids invested in school, because once they fall behind, it's embarrassing to be behind their peers, and to take that risk to try. It's almost too much,” said Robert's teacher, Megan Macpherson, who worries about her students moving on to middle school where there will be less individualized attention to keep them on track.

When students transition from elementary to secondary school, their chances of being suspended increase from 2.4% to 11%, according to a recent study out of UCLA.

And once they do get suspended, they're more likely to drop out.

Researcher Robert Balfanz found that students who were suspended once in ninth grade dropped out of high school twice as often as their peers who were not suspended.


Youth Court and Restorative Justice

In Robert's school district, administrators are actively trying to reduce suspensions. Between 2004 - 2011, the district cut its suspensions in half through restorative justice strategies like the youth court program at Richmond High School. In this program, students are trained to act as lawyers, judges and jurors. They listen to both sides of a problem and then decide appropriate consequences other than suspension.

At Richmond High School in California, a youth court session ended with the student speaker banging her gavel: "This court is now adjourned."

Credit: Robyn Gee

Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS)

Another popular strategy for lowering suspension rates in schools is Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS). This strategy revolves around intentionally creating a positive culture in schools to prevent negative behavior from occurring.

Dr. Rob Horner is a Professor of Special Education at the University of Oregon and an expert on PBIS. He says the method is used in over 8,000 schools and has even caught traction with the White House.

"The reason educators feel the compulsion to use techniques like detention, suspension, expulsion, is because they say, 'This child's behavior detracts from the educational opportunities of everybody else,'" Horner said. "We've learned if you focus on the front end to prevent problem behaviors, the number of these situations goes way down."

Tough Decisions

I taught eighth grade in a school that was close to being taken over by the state because of its low performance. Schools in this position are often encouraged to set a hard line with students -- you're in or you're out. That doesn't exactly encourage new teachers to be flexible with students and get to know them.

Balfanz observed that one of the best ways to prevent suspension is to foster strong relationships between students and teachers. "When those relationships are weak, it's easier for students to act out, and it's easier for teachers to be harsh in their reactions. Neither side has an invested relationship with the other," he said.

Reflecting back on my years as a classroom teacher, I wish I had prioritized keeping students in school. But at the time, it felt impossible. I did feel compelled to use suspensions to keep my class under control. Getting a knock from the teacher next-door asking me to "keep it down" only made me more desperate to get rid of noisy students.

Now I'm realizing that I might have been getting rid of them for good.

Have you used any interventions besides suspension to work with troubled students? What has worked for you?

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D'Angon Academy for Language Acquisition's picture
D'Angon Academy for Language Acquisition
English learning summer camp for foreign children 9-12 years old

"Balfanz observed that one of the best ways to prevent suspension is to foster strong relationships between students and teachers"

On one hand I completely agree with the above. But on the other hand how difficult is this in an educational environment like we have in the U.S.? What I mean by this is that we have seen in Latin American countries that student/teacher relationship are far more relaxed than in the U.S. I don't have data to support that suspension rates are lower in these countries but it would be interesting to know. I would assume that they are.

The point I am trying to make is: are teachers and schools (specifically in North America) willing to invest in stronger bonds between them without fears of consequences? The Ed. society like the one we live in currently in the United States is from my view too strict on how a teacher should behave towards students - not to imply there shouldn't be restrictions of course - but where is the balance.

In other words what does a "Strong relationship" between a student and a teacher mean?

Marcel Dubois's picture

"Balfanz observed that one of the best ways to prevent suspension is to foster strong relationships between students and teachers. "When those relationships are weak, it's easier for students to act out, and it's easier for teachers to be harsh in their reactions. Neither side has an invested relationship with the other," he said."

Yes, but how do you establish any sort of a relationship when you really are just keeping kids in a room for an hour before they dash to the next one?

CaptainSuburb's picture

In terms of relationships in short classes, I can only say what works best for me.

First, get to know the students - their interests. Talk to them about their pets, their hockey or their dance recitals. If their mom is sick, ask how she's doing. It helps a lot if you have some kind of extra-curricular presence in the school.

Praise, praise, praise. Begin a lesson with a few examples of good work. ("Just listen to Billy's answer to question 4! I liked it because he thought about the character in a different way.") or ("Susie had an interesting way of attacking this math problem. It's not exactly the way I showed you.). Make sure that LD kids have their work valued in this way.

Praise is not a panacea. But in an environment where student creativity and success is obviously valued, the students will trust your motives, and discipline becomes an appeal to the students to focus on their work rather than to just "be good".

Lastly, every day is a new chance. When you greet the student who caused trouble the day before, smile and chat with him. This will prevent you from lapsing into maladaptive roles.

Sandra's picture
High School Principal

Coming from a very small school, the most successful strategy we have had the most success with is relationship building. Not only with teachers, but front office staff as well. Every adult in the building is committed to building a relationship with students that is positive. it is completely a team effort. Also, we have found PBIS to be instrumental in teaching students what is expected of them. Through these combined efforts, we have managed to hold onto students that would have otherwise been suspended, withdrawn or simply dropped out.

Cristen Minori's picture


At this point in the school year, we are having increased behavior problems and I can relate to the experiences you had with the student you first suspended because we have a student right now who is showing some serious behaviors problems, such as the ones you mentioned. I teach in an elementary school and it is pretty uncommon for us to suspend students. However, it has been a thought that has crossed my mind after dealing with these issues. After reading your article, I agree with your view on suspensions and how it is important that we try other interventions to help students with behavior problems. In our school, we have behavior contracts with some of our students, and for this particular student, it is helping him make progress in certain areas, but we are seeing other types of behavior occurring which are concerned about. Establishing a school wide behavior program, such as PBIS, would also be a solution that would be effective.

Cristen Minori

Whitney Hoffman's picture
Whitney Hoffman
Producer LD Podcast, Digital Media Consultant, Author

Hi Cristen- can I ask whether you have looped the parents in or asked questions about what else is happening in this student's life outside of school? As a parent, I know that often times, kids act out because they need a release valve- they are also looking for attention, sometimes in the least productive way possible. Is there a way to approach the problem as a bit of a "social autopsy" as Rick Lavoie puts it, to better understand what's going on underneath the surface with a kid?
Behavior contracts are really just a written way to get a kid to do what you want them to do- getting to the why of why they are acting that way will get closer to resolving the problem than giving the kid a list of tasks to perform, when t he underlying problem could be a learning disability, like ADHD or dyslexia, for example. Has the child had an educational evaluation? Also, if the student doesn't get meaningful input into creating the contract, who are the folks who are parties to the contract? A contract, in legal terms, requires the meeting of the minds as to terms, and a series of exchanges of value- the value has to flow both ways, not just one way- if only one way, it's coercion, not a contract. If the kid is not an active participant in creating the contract, it likely will not work, because it's simply another way to set up a kid to meet expectations he's already having trouble meeting.

One of the best books on the subject is "The Motivation breakthrough- 6 steps to turing on a tuned out child" by Rick Lavoie- I can't recommend it highly enough.

Alex Shevrin's picture
Alex Shevrin
Community college teacher, former school leader, Edutopia community facilitator

Cristen, I would just echo what Whitney says around finding out the "story behind the story." You might be interested in this post:

Kids do well if they can, and if they don't have the skill, there's usually something in their way. You might be the first one to help that student unpack what's in the way.

Cristen Minori's picture


Yes, we have contacted his mom and had several meetings with her in school. We are very aware about what is happening at home. He is a very capable, smart student who has been an active member of the behavior contract since we began implementing it. Thank you for your input and book recommendation.


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