The Secret to Fixing School Discipline? Change the Behavior of Adults

Jane Ellen Stevens
New America Media / News Report
Published: Wednesday 27 March 2013
The secret to success doesn’t involve the kids so much as it does the adults: Focus on altering the behavior of teachers and administrators and, almost like magic, the kids stop fighting and acting out in class.
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EDITOR'S NOTE: Following is an excerpt of the first of a series of articles about how schools in California are moving from a punitive to a supportive, compassionate approach to school discipline. The full article can be read at ACEsTooHigh. The series is funded by The California Endowment.  

If fixing school discipline were a political campaign, the slogan would be, “It’s the Adults, Stupid!” 

A sea change is coursing slowly but resolutely through this nation’s K-12 education system. More than 23,000 schools out of 132,000 nationwide have or are discarding a highly punitive approach to school discipline in favor of supportive, compassionate, and solution-oriented methods. Those that take the slow-but-steady road can see a 20 percent to 40 percent drop in suspensions in their first year of transformation. A few — where the principal, all teachers and staff embrace an immediate overhaul — experience higher rates, as much as an 85 percent drop in suspensions and a 40 percent drop in expulsions. Bullying, truancy, and tardiness are waning. Graduation rates, test scores and grades are trending up. 

The formula is simple, really: Instead of waiting for kids to behave badly and then punishing them, schools are creating environments in which kids can succeed. “We have to be much more thoughtful about how we teach our kids to behave, and how our staff behaves in those environments that we create,” says Mike Hanson, superintendent of Fresno (CA) Unified School District, which began a district-wide overhaul of all of its 92 schools in 2008. 

This isn’t a single program or a short-term trend or a five-year plan that will disappear as soon as the funding runs out. Where it’s taken hold, it’s a don’t-look-back, got-the-bit-in-the-teeth, I-can’t-belieeeeeve-we-used-to-do-it-the-old-way type of shift. 

The secret to success doesn’t involve the kids so much as it does the adults: Focus on altering the behavior of teachers and administrators, and, almost like magic, the kids stop fighting and acting out in class. They’re more interested in school, they’re happier and feel safer. 

“We’re changing the behavior of the adults on campuses, changing how they respond to poor behavior on kids’ part,” says Mary Ann Carousso, head of student services for Kings Canyon Unified School District in Central California, which launched a five-year plan in 2010 to revamp the district’s 20 schools. 

This movement began about a dozen years ago, and has gained momentum in the last five years. The first schools to yank themselves free of the knee-jerk punitive response to bad behavior did so based on two unrelated developments. 

First, suspensions and expulsions soared to ridiculous levels. By 2007, a stunning one-quarter of all public high school students had been suspended at least once during their school careers, according to a National Center for Education Statistics 2011 report. The numbers were worse for boys of color. One-third of Hispanic boys and 57 percent of black boys had been kicked out of school at least once. 

Further, the report noted that more than three million kids are suspended or expelled each year — in 2006 that number was 3,430,830. In California, 464,050 children were kicked out of school that year, many more than once, for a total of more than 800,000 suspensions and expulsions. 

The acceleration began with the adoption of broad zero-tolerance policies that spread like a prairie fire across the United States in 1995, just one year after the U.S. Congress passed the Gun-Free Schools Act of 1994. Once “zero tolerance” was locked in, teachers and principals warped it, some say, by the pressure to perform well on tests. Kick the troublemakers out, and there’s less disruption and interruption in class. With those underperforming kids gone, test scores look better. 

Here’s the absurd part: Only five percent of these suspensions or expulsions were for weapons or drugs. The other 95 percent? “Disruptive behavior” and “other”. This includes cell phone use, violation of dress code, talking back to a teacher, bringing scissors to class for an art project, giving Midol to a classmate, and, in at least one case, farting. 

But punishment doesn’t change behavior; it just drops hundreds of thousands of flailing kids into a school to prison pipeline. The ka-ching to us taxpayers is $292,000 per dropout over his or her lifetime due to costs for more police, courts, and prisons, plus loss of income and taxes into our civic treasuries. 

“Suspensions and expulsions don’t work,” says Javier Martinez, principal of Le Grand High School, Le Grand, CA. His approach is: “How do I help student overcome a problem so that it doesn’t happen again?” 

“You can’t punish a behavior out of a kid,” says Jen Caldwell, a social worker at El Dorado Elementary School in San Francisco, CA. “The old-school model of discipline comes from people who think kids intentionally behave badly.” 

Joseph Arruda, learning director at Reedley High School in Reedley, CA, shakes his head: “Suspending, expelling… that’s the old way.” 

“It’s hard on them and on the parents,” says Andre Griggs, after-school program coordinator at Le Grand High School. “It doesn’t help the overall education of student.” 

The second driver for change crept in sideways from educators who were teaching children with behavior disorders, from programs created to help kids deal with violence (particularly shootings) in and around their schools, and from restorative justice practices developed for the criminal justice system. Teachers and principals who saw the harm of zero tolerance finally had some alternatives to kicking kids out of class. All the methods focused the social and emotional lives of children, such as teaching children respect, empathy, and coping skills. Equipped with their own conflict resolution skills, teachers could defuse most situations in their classrooms instead of sending disruptive kids to the principal’s office. 

The methods now have names such as PBIS (Positive Behavioral Intervention and Support), Safe & Civil SchoolsCBITS (Cognitive Behavioral Intervention for Trauma in Schools), restorative justicetrauma-sensitive schools, and HEARTS (Healthy Environments and Response to Trauma in Schools). They all focus first on changing what teachers and administrators do. Once that’s done, most children’s behavior begins to fall into place. 

PBIS is now in more than 18,000 schools nationwide, 500 in California. Safe & Civil Schools is in 5,000 schools nationwide, including several hundred in California. All public schools in Los Angeles use CBITS, San Francisco Unified School District has collaborated with HEARTS to train all of their schools’ mental health coordinators in trauma-sensitive practices, and dozens of schools up and down the state use restorative justice practices. In schools that use the programs, words like “de-escalate”, “solidify a relationship”, “develop trust”, and “teachable moments” slide off the tongues of teachers and administrators as they help students recognize, understand, and regulate their behavior, as well as ask for help. 

In some schools, principals, teachers and staff embrace the changes wholeheartedly, and reserve expulsions and suspensions for carrying weapons and selling drugs, required by law. But some schools tiptoe into the change, and still enforce an automatic suspension or expulsion on kids who fight or are caught using drugs, including alcohol. In other schools, with teachers or principals who don’t believe in a compassionate approach and who still think that a heavy hand works best, little changes. 

Overall, U.S. schools still lose millions of children that needn’t be lost. In California, for example, although suspensions and expulsions have dropped 12 percent — more than 100,000 — between 2006 and 2011, there were still more than 700,000 suspensions and expulsions during the 2010-2011 school year.



ABOUT Jane Ellen Stevens

Jane Ellen Stevens is the founder and editor of ACEsTooHigh.com

Definitely adults matter, but

Definitely adults matter, but adults working at the school can't do it all by themselves. Parents matter, as do all the other adults the children interact with. It is not fair for people to bash school employees as failures while failing to support what they are trying to accomplish with time & money & even just backing what judgements they have to make.

How many ways can we blame

How many ways can we blame teachers and schools as a whole for education problems? I agree that treating students, co-workers, parents, and administrators with more respect is necessary in changing the climate of schools. It wasn't teachers or administrators, however, who instituted zero tolerance policies. I've participated in meetings where the involved parties agreed that kicking someone out because of an impersonal zero tolerance should be avoided if we could find a way.

This is one of those vapid articles about how schools are wrong, suggesting that only simple changes are required. It's interesting that there isn't one specific example of the changes of which she speaks.

I have some suggestions. Smaller, differentiated classes built to help the students succeed. Students with the very real life problems over which they have no control can be grouped to help them deal with the counseling sort of problems they have to live with at home in addition to dealing with addition.

Counseling services at most schools are drastically cut compared with the recent past. Counselors are often used primarily for scheduling classes, and not available to help individual students. Special counseling services such as group counseling regular student/counselor meetings are a thing of the past.

In a forty year career as a teacher, I have seen a constant stream of lofty plans sold to school boards and parents. Usually these are prefaced by the sort of lofty and implicitly condemning rhetoric we see in the article above. It is suggested that if recalcitrant teachers and school administrators will only embrace change instead of resisting it, everything will be much better. The problem comes with the specifics of the changes. Often they are unrealistic, require financial investment (unrealistic), and require much more work from already overburdened professionals. They are often also poorly thought-out plans based on a limited understanding of some very successful teachers.

When our nation (also known as "we") shows that it cares about it's citizens more than its corporations by investing its resources in helping to alleviate the burgeoning problems suffered by an increasing number of people, it will be easier to believe in new schemes to change those nasty teachers and schools.

I started teaching Elementary

I started teaching Elementary school at Atgeld Elementary in the inner city of Chicago. On the open house where parents come to see the work of their
child and speak to the teacher....not one parent showed up.
Parents did then and do now see school as a baby sitter for their child.
In the next school they sent me to.I was badly assaulted by a 6 foot 8th grader
as he disliked me keeping him from 1st grade girls....his parents never came to school to apologize to me.
Now in secondary school...teachers are competing with iPhones, iPads, drug use in the washroom and general disrespect of teachers.
Lastly, I ended up teaching in Salinas Valley Prison a level 4 prison. I never had a discipline problem teaching GED...and there was no guard in the room.
That says it all.

"All the methods focused the

"All the methods focused the social and emotional lives of children, such as teaching children respect, empathy, and coping skills. Equipped with their own conflict resolution skills, teachers could defuse most situations in their classrooms instead of sending disruptive kids to the principal’s office. "

I'm a retired teacher and it sounds like one more of the many theories on improving education that don't work.

Poverty is the main reason for poor test scores and poor performance in schools, not bad teachers. One fifth of American children live in poverty and facing up to that reality is a moral issue.

Teachers are convenient scapegoats for the ills of our society. Many of our best teachers quit because they are beaten down by bad working conditions, low pay and lack of support. Every year 20 percent of teachers in urban districts quit.

Researcher Dr. Clancy Blair of New York University has an article published in “Scientific American Mind" Sept/Oct. 2012 entitled “Stress Relief Can Be the Key to Success in School”. In this article he states, “Stress may be silently sabotaging success in school. Its effects are especially potent for children in poverty." The study was funded by the National Institutes of Health.

He concludes that this altered stress response and its effect on executive function helps to explain one way in which poverty affects children’s development of school readiness skills and later classroom performance.

Although poverty is considered a major source of stress, the findings also suggest that other sources of stress may affect children in all income groups—for example, from divorce, harsh parenting or struggles with a learning disability.

I went Rounds with teachers

I went Rounds with teachers back in the mid 60s onward when my kids were in school. Same awful "teaching" methods then. Some are VERY slow learners. Some are never capable of learning these things. It should be required!! Ever notice, the kids that learn best are taught by teachers that LIKE kids, and LIKE teaching. Kids are born inquisitive, wanting to learn. Its a shame that school too often kills the wanting to learn. They only want out!

palsimon's picture

I am especially pleased that

I am especially pleased that "All the methods focused the social and emotional lives of children, such as teaching children respect, empathy, and coping skills."

I believe the NUMBER ONE solution is teaching children the importance of THE GOLDEN RULE, as well as moral ethics, and demonstrating RESPECT for one another.

If teachers and faculty treat each other with RESPECT, if parents treat each other with RESPECT, if Governments treat citizens with RESPECT, if politicians campaign with RESPECT, if we debate issues with RESPECT, if TV programs focus on RESPECT..... well, I am sure it would rub off. We can still have free press and uncensored movies, but in our serious lives we must show more RESPECT for each other.

palsimon's picture

I am especially pleased that

I am especially pleased that "All the methods focused the social and emotional lives of children, such as teaching children respect, empathy, and coping skills."

I believe the NUMBER ONE solution is teaching children the importance of THE GOLDEN RULE, as well as moral ethics, and demonstrating RESPECT for one another.

If teachers and faculty treat each other with RESPECT, if parents treat each other with RESPECT, if Governments treat citizens with RESPECT, if politicians campaign with RESPECT, if we debate issues with RESPECT, if TV programs focus on RESPECT..... well, I am sure it would rub off. We can still have free press and uncensored movies, but in our serious lives we must show more RESPECT for each other.

I won't go so far as to call

I won't go so far as to call it a crock but I would think the author would have been a bit more specific as to the changes in teacher behavior that brings about this magic.
I am a retired public school teacher. Fourteen of my 42 years in the field were spent as an elementary pricipal in a very tough urban school. As if it was not already a hard place to succeed we had court ordered bussing to make it even worse.
We changed our behavior by becoming much more vigilant and preventing problems rather than dealing with the aftermath of anger and resentment that came from punishment. We reduced suspensions, fights and truancy almost to zero. We received recognition from the central office administration, the PTA and the school board. Then I got fired. None of the successes we had brought about while I was principal mattered.

I mistakenly authorized a field trip to an unapproved location. This was treated as deliberate insubordination and my contract was not renewed. I probably could have gone to court and won but I just did not have the heart for it.

It was discouraging to see what the school system valued.

What a crock! Same old

What a crock! Same old education-eze that we were fed over the last 30 years. Until we change the behavior of all adults (and this means parents and the behavior of our cultural idols) and quit focusing on changing the school personnel, nothing will change.

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