George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Beyond Zero Tolerance: Achieving a Balance in School Discipline

Russ Skiba

Professor, Indiana University--Bloomington
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Disruptive behavior continues to be one of the most challenging issues that schools face today. Even one seriously incompliant student can threaten teaching and learning for the rest of the class. And though exceedingly rare given the large number of schools throughout our country, incidents of deadly violence shake our confidence in school safety.

In the 1990s, amidst similar circumstances and fears, schools adopted "get tough" philosophies of discipline: increased suspensions, expulsions, school arrests and zero tolerance. By cracking down on all transgressions, school leaders hoped to send a message to students that misbehaviors would not be tolerated, and also make classrooms safer for learners that remained.

Disparities in How African American Students are Disciplined

Throughout the nation, the zero tolerance doctrine dramatically increased suspensions and expulsions. Disparities for students of color, especially African American students, continue to grow. While Black students were suspended twice as often as Caucasians in the early 1970s according to the latest data from the U.S. Department of Education, today they are suspended three and a half times as often -- a disproportion that cannot be accounted for by poverty or by rates of student disruption.

Zero Tolerance is Ineffective

After 15 years, extensive reviews of the literature by researchers and professional organizations such as the American Psychological Association have found no evidence that increasing suspensions and expulsions improves student behavior or guarantees school safety. In fact, schools that employ more suspensions and expulsions have poorer ratings of school climate and school safety, higher rates of racial disparity in discipline, and lower scores on academic achievement tests.

Exclusionary discipline also creates serious risks for students. According to a groundbreaking report by the Council for State Governments, being suspended or expelled significantly increases the risk of school dropout and contact with the juvenile justice system. These risks, often termed the school-to-prison pipeline, are magnified for students of color. A report by the American Academy of Pediatrics strongly argued that out-of-school suspension and expulsion should be used only as a last resort.

Fixing School Discipline

In response, districts across the nation have begun to reform their disciplinary codes, emphasizing strategies that build a positive school climate and minimize the use of school suspension and expulsion. States such as California, Texas, Connecticut and Maryland have begun to make changes in statewide policy regarding school discipline. At the federal level, the Departments of Education and Justice have joined together in the Supportive School Discipline Initiative, providing guidance on where the government will intervene to reduce racial disparities, and identifying promising alternatives to suspension and expulsion.

Some fear that removing suspension or expulsion as tools for maintaining order and discipline in our schools will allow disruptive students to run wild. But the point of disciplinary reform is not to deprive schools of strategies so much as to find the right tools -- those that are most effective in promoting safe, orderly and healthy learning environments.

Schools across the country have effectively reduced rates of disciplinary exclusion, implementing strategies that change behavior and improve school climate by teaching students appropriate and positive behavior. The Denver Public Schools implemented restorative conferences in schools throughout the district to rebuild relationships and repair the harm done by violence and disruption. Denver is among a growing number of districts working with an Educator's Toolkit to Fix School Discipline that describes how to facilitate a "conflict circle" and includes links to resources for implementing change at the classroom level.

By implementing social emotional learning and planning teams around school discipline, the Cleveland Metropolitan School District increased attendance while reducing suspensions by over 50 percent. In districts throughout the nation, schools are using Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports to shift disciplinary systems toward a system of shared values, recognition and rewards for students who act in accord with those values.

9 Alternative Approaches to Classroom Discipline

Zero tolerance is a failed experiment. Moreover, the accumulation of data across the nation is beginning to show that, by expanding our options and focusing on teaching behavior rather than simply punishing misbehavior, we can maintain safety and order in our schools without removing the opportunity to learn.

Change starts in the classroom, and the following list of discipline practices can serve to counter the school-to-prison pipeline:

  1. Talk to the student about the harm that his or her behavior has caused, rather than about the rules that were violated.
  2. As a consequence of misbehavior, make students responsible for repairing the damage.
  3. Use a non-threatening tone in private talks with the misbehaving student.
  4. Build relationships with disruptive students by asking about their out-of-school interests and what things they like to do in school.
  5. If bullying causes disruptions, watch Dr. Michele Borba's 20-minute video, "Six R's that Reduce Bullying."
  6. Provide students with specific feedback about their behaviors and social skills.
  7. Find out what resources your state has for fostering Dignity in Schools.
  8. Because misbehavior occurs in instances where students are bored or overwhelmed, differentiate instruction so that students feel appropriately challenged.
  9. Teach students peer mediation so that they can constructively manage their own conflicts.

What classroom management strategies work for your students? Please describe them in the comment section below.

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Comments (14) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

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

Hi Liz-
Has anyone also asked the kid what's going on from their perspective and really listened? Part of discipline is also teaching and learning on everyone's behalf, and I say that as a parent where my kids have moments where I say to myself- "they know better than that and have been taught better, but still chose to make a choice that makes me simply embarrassed in front of the teacher" - and I realize this comes in all shapes and sizes of course. But if a kid is having a consistent problem, you aren't going to solve it by playing whack a mole with a new strategy- you need to find out why the kid thinks his behaviors are right, justified, etc and really see it from their point of view. Otherwise, all the solutions in the world won't work, and everything you try requires consistency- because Im sure right now, this kid doesn't trust the system very much at all. If you can help the child see everyone is trying to help them and be on the same side, - their side- maybe it will make a difference.
It can be very frustrating, particularly with middle schoolers and high school students- but they also have to decide they want the help or the education we're trying to provide- but we also should not overlook underlying learning disabilities, social problems and more that may be getting in the way.

Liz's picture

Yes. I have tried talking to him, other teachers have, our principal has, his father has.... We have had almost ten meetings with his parents this year alone. It was a similar situation last year. We ask, "What is going on?" "Is something up?" etc. Usually the response is "I don't know" or "nothing" or something inconclusive. Everything we've done has been with understanding, trying to meet him halfway, etc. His response indicates that he thinks is "getting away with it" when we respond this way, and nothing changes.

Jillian Willis's picture
Jillian Willis
Secondary Social Studies Teacher

Hi there!
I appreciate Russ's article for the sake of awareness. I used to be a strong believer in the "Zero-Tolerance Policy" in my own classroom but found out quickly that it does not work in the long run!
After working just 30 miles south of Washington D.C. at a private school for a year and understanding my junior high students better, I realized that exclusionary discipline usually did little in changing the student's behavior. The reason why had everything to do with the type of students I was teaching. We're talking about junior high students--"pre-people" I like to call them--whose parents worked in D.C., dropped them off in the early mornings for before-care and picked them up after sports practice or after-care late in the evening. My students were craving attention, whether it was positive or negative. Isolating students only made them crave more attention, and the less attention they received, the more unruly they became.
We need to understand the environments our students come from and the needs which come from that environment as a result. I understand there are always those students that have "thick skulls" it seems--but maybe instead of laying on the disciplinary tactics and increasing the amount of isolation, maybe we should consider asking him or her "what's wrong?" Ask them to justify their behavior and explain it. They know when their behavior is out of turn--kids are smart. Making them explain their behavior gives you as a teacher the opportunity to teach better behavior. I'm not saying let's be a bunch of "softies" and let the kids walk all over us. I'm only 5 feet tall and some of my students are much taller than I, therefore I make it clear that I am not their friend or a push-over, but in the midst of the "strong" appearance I give off, I also allow for a soft side that my students know they can open up to if they feel they need to.
Consider the world our students are growing up in--do you really think adding more negativity to their lives is going to make them positive? Adding more of the same just increases in volume, it does not promote change. Continuing to punish a student over and over will only "break" the student in to good behavior--but what if good behavior is the only result? I know for some of us that's all we want! Just one day where this particular student will just behave! But ultimately we should be striving for good hearts out of our students which will make good decisions in the future and always opt to help others and do the right thing when they are outside of your classroom. Fostering that type of change and development only comes from developing relationships with the students and expecting not just good behavior, but good hearts.
It's very easy as a teacher to feel intimidated by the idea of being vulnerable with our students, but I have found that building relationships with your students actually helps you out more since then your student will understand you and your standards and have respect for you. I know some students are harder to crack than others, and good behavior must be modeled not just in the classroom but at home as well, but if we remain consistent and approachable, I know students will respect us more and learn more from us than we ever thought could be possible.

Jaime M.'s picture

The strategy that works the best in my classroom is to get to know the students at the beginning of the year and incorporate what they like into my lessons. I teach 6th, 7th and 8th graders, and last year I had a 6th grader who was very disruptive to the class, he would call me every name in the book, and even threw desks at me. The only thing that helped with that student however was to remove him from my classroom. There is no way other students or a teacher should have to stay in a classroom where they feel they can be physically harmed. The 9 approaches stated in the blog are great and do help for some students, but there are times where removal is the only option. I do not think they should be removed from school all together. This particular student was placed in a rehabilitation facility for six months and is now back into my 7th grade classroom this year and has been doing exceptionally well. When the student came back into my classroom, I sat down with him and we discussed both of our expectations for the class and what we expect out of each other as well. We also went over what he enjoys about school and outside of school so I have been incorporating that into his class and he has been striving.

John S. Thomas's picture
John S. Thomas
First & Second Grade Teacher/Adjunct Faculty Antioch University New England, former Elementary Principal

Liz, Without knowing more about the student's situation it is hard to recommend something in addition to what you have already tried or is already in this thread. It seems that determining what the triggers to the behavior are would be key. If you can determine the triggers sometimes those triggers can be adjusted just enough to begin to develop some changes in the student's behavior. Then it is all about rebuilding the trust.

I would suggest getting data of the child's environmental situation in and out of school by tracking the unwelcome behaviors by noting the time of day, class/subject, day of week, weather, sleep and even diet to see if there are some commonalities surrounding the noted behaviors. Bring in the family as well to add to the list of things being tracked.

A solid behavior specialist can give you a list of things to track and materials to help you track them easily and then the specialist can review the data and help make any sense of it and see if there may be potential causes. That being said, sometimes just getting this sort of data can help you and your colleagues figure it out on your own. Good luck and let us know how it develops.

Ghibli Kang's picture
Ghibli Kang
im interested in Education setion.Because the education is the future

As a student, Teachers must attention to their environment. And then keep attention to them if they don't change. Finally, They can be changed. it takes a long time, but it is the best policy for them.

Sped62's picture

I have found that students need a " future story." Therefore, I teach my students the rules of school as they apply to the work place. I explain to them that the rules of home may not apply in a job setting. In addition, we explore paths to careers.
If my students do not follow rules, I conference with them and assign consequences if warranted. I do not "run" to administration, as this is not a good job skill. If they do something well, I give positive feedback. And, I always try to model the behavior I want my students to display.

Sped62's picture

Has he been referred to Special Education yet? He may have a mental illness.

Mr.D's picture

I tire of these articles that point out this stat regarding African American suspension rates but never dig into the issue. WHY are more black students being suspended? Racist teachers/administrators? I think a big part of this issue has to do with socioeconomic, as my personal observations over the years is that a greater percent of lower income students have disciplinary issues than students higher on that scale. However, rather than blaming teachers/administrators for these suspensions, maybe we should look at a culture that does not stress the role of education in career and economic success. We have nurtured a few generations of black males who see athletics or entertainment as the best path to success in life. A drastic reduction of school suspensions does nothing to address the root of that problem. Personally, I am not a fan of zero tolerance, but it cannot be blamed for African American suspension rates.

Our school is a little under 70% white. About 20% black, and about 10% Hispanic. Most years I have a few foreign exchange students. One 18 year old from Vietnam wanted to speak to me after school one day. After two weeks in our country, he wanted to know why the black students in his classes caused so many disruptions. I was at a loss for words, as all my politically correct responses weren't such a tight fit to this question, given the source. Having been around African American students for the first time in his life, this is the unbiased observation he made. When are we as educators and as a society going to be able to have an honest, public discussion about this issue? Black and Hispanic females are hitting college campuses in larger numbers, while black and Hispanic males in this country are taking a much different path in their school/life direction.

Susan G's picture
Susan G
Pre-service Teachers Technology

Social emotional learning is a wonderful start to this issue. Yet, it is in the structure of the current school system that losses student interest and motivation. The current system keeps the struggling students codependent and doesn't support the motivated student.

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