Early Education

Why is it so hard to stop suspending kindergarteners?

Districts around the country are looking for ways to keep young children with behavior problems in class

Relationships are at the core of what makes climate work, said O’Brien Principal Lesley Morgan-Thompson, shown at right, with Assistant Principal Corrie A. Schram and a first-grade student.

PHILADELPHIA — When Heather Kiausas was seven weeks pregnant, one of her third graders punched her in the stomach.

Kiausas, an elementary school teacher with seven years of experience teaching in the School District of Philadelphia, had up until then handled the child’s behavior issues — on that day, refusing to complete his work, getting out of his seat and distracting classmates — by following school protocol: first talking with the student, then recess detention, then calls home, and eventually pink slips to document extreme behavioral problems.

After the punching incident, however, her school principal took discipline to the next level and suspended the boy for several days. Much later, Kiausas learned what might have been behind the punch. “There was a lot of trauma happening at home [for the student],” she wrote in an email. “But we were not aware of these issues until months later, after the student was placed in another classroom.”

Incidents like this — and the progression of disciplinary steps that culminated in removing the child from school without addressing underlying problems at home — have prompted Philadelphia and districts across the country to take a hard look at student discipline. So far, Philadelphia has banned suspensions of kindergarteners and hopes to do the same for first and second grade students soon. Other districts around the country and even entire states, such as Connecticut, are also banning suspensions and expulsions in the early grades, a practice that research shows disproportionately affects black and Hispanic boys and neglects to take into account other crucial issues impacting a child, such as trauma at home.

Related: Do ‘zero tolerance’ school discipline policies go too far?

Last school year, the School District of Philadelphia suspended 5,667 children under the age of 10, including kindergarteners through third graders. Of the district’s 134,041 students, 50 percent are black and 20 percent Hispanic.

Acknowledging the long-term harmful impact of kicking young children out of school, the district revised its Student Code of Conduct last summer to ban suspending kindergarteners unless their actions resulted in serious bodily injury. Since then, however, some say the needle hasn’t moved much. “It’s fair to say that young kids are still suspended in Philadelphia in violation of the policy,” said Harold Jordan, senior policy advocate for the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania. “The district administrators have not come through with implementing the new policy, even when it comes to kindergarten.”

Not so, said Karyn T. Lynch, the district’s chief of student support services. “We’re projecting that we’ll see substantial differences this year [in the number of kindergarten suspensions] compared to last year. In general, we’re encouraged, we think we’re moving in the right direction,” Lynch said. “It’s important to see this in context of the work that’s been done in advance of this recommendation. It was not a decision we made easily, or without having the necessary climate and framework in place.”

Related: Can a California charter chain ditch tough discipline and retain its high ranking?

At Robert J. O’Brien STEM Academy in East Hartford, Connecticut, suspensions have dropped into the single-digits this school year.

Across the country, disciplining children by kicking them out of school, referred to as exclusionary discipline, affects kids as young as 3 years old. In 2014, the U.S. Department of Education reported 5,000 preschoolers were suspended at least once, and 2,500 preschoolers were suspended more than once.

Research shows that when young children, many of whom are still learning classroom coping skills, are pushed out of school early and repeatedly, the impact can be irreversibly damaging. According to a Department of Education policy statement, children suspended in the early school years are 10 times more likely to drop out of high school, experience academic failure and grade retention, hold negative attitudes about school and face incarceration, than those who are not.

Philadelphia’s ban on kindergarten suspension is a positive step, said the ACLU’s Jordan, though he noted that it remains a work in progress. Overall, however, he said he has seen “a lot of good things happening in the district,” including the district’s focus on reducing exclusionary discipline in middle and high school. “In the later grades, I think we did not lag behind the rest of the country [in changing disciplinary policy]. But we are late to the game when it comes to talking about, much less addressing on a policy front, early childhood exclusion.”

The most comprehensive effort to eliminate exclusionary discipline for young children is unfolding in Connecticut. In 2015, the state passed legislation banning the suspension of children from preschool through second grade unless it is first determined at a hearing that the child’s behavior is of a violent or sexual nature that endangers others. “In Connecticut, they didn’t just pass a law; they passed a very nuanced and detailed law,” said Jordan. “It’s comprehensive and savvy with a lot of safeguards, much more detailed than what districts usually do.” Another distinguishing characteristic of Connecticut’s effort is that the state provides supports to its school districts, and to the agencies that are expected to support them in implementing the policy, rather than relying on individual school districts to organize and fund the supports needed.

Connecticut’s Department of Education reports that preschool through second-grade suspensions and expulsions dropped by nearly one third since the 2014-15 school year — from 2,365 children then, to 1,674 last school year.

Related: Minnesota’s suburban districts struggle to close discipline gap

Physical education and health teacher Stephen Higgins, who has taught at O’Brien since 1999, is a native of East Hartford.

One Connecticut elementary school in which suspensions have dropped into the single-digits is the Robert J. O’Brien STEM Academy in East Hartford. O’Brien is classified as a high-poverty elementary school, with just over 60 percent of its students eligible for free or reduced-price meals. Approximately 50 percent of its students are Hispanic, 36 percent are African American, and less than 10 percent are white. Five years ago, O’Brien reported 194 suspensions, including nearly 32 kindergarten suspensions. This year, with one month left before summer break, the school had just six suspensions, none of which involved kindergarteners.

This sea change in discipline came about via a transformative cocktail of state-allocated money, district guidance, staff training and time. “We didn’t exactly have a zero tolerance policy at the time, but the expectations for school staff was that if kids did certain things, they would simply be suspended,” said O’Brien Principal Lesley Morgan-Thompson. “So for us it was all about changing that approach. This took multiple years.”

The school’s turnaround began in the fall of 2014 when O’Brien joined the Commissioner’s Network, a state-sponsored rescue program serving 21 of Connecticut’s lowest-performing schools. As a result, O’Brien received $473,000 the first year, $550,000 the next year, and $410,000 this year to address its high levels of exclusionary discipline and other issues such as chronic absenteeism, low math and reading test scores, and limited family engagement.

To begin the process of reversing the school’s suspension rate, Morgan-Thompson knew her teachers needed stronger classroom management skills. Following guidance from the district, she immediately enrolled her teachers in training that would help them gain control of their classrooms. To get ready to help students in dire need of support, teachers took a summer course in Life Space Crisis Intervention, a program that trains educators to turn crisis situations into learning opportunities. “We honestly just didn’t have the skills to help our most impacted children,” said Morgan-Thompson.

In spite of these interventions, many teachers at the school still viewed suspensions as a valuable disciplinary tool and questioned their ability to keep students under control without it. That dilemma is at the heart of what critics maintain is an argument against banning suspensions: If children aren’t firmly disciplined, how will teachers control the classroom learning environment?

Related: Educators worry schools are botching student discipline reform

Banning suspensions in the early grades is not about eliminating interventions, says the ACLU’s Jordan. Instead, it is about training school principals, and teachers, to use alternative methods for handling difficult situations. First, he said, school staff must be able to figure out the root cause of the problem, then they can work together to map out a reasonable solution. “Sometimes this comes down to more effective classroom management,” he said. “Other times, you’re dealing with a child who is traumatized by something that is happening outside of school, which requires a different response. In some situations, you will find that teachers push to remove kids from school based on their own stereotypes.”

In spite of all the training teachers received, Morgan-Thompson said a midyear audit two years ago revealed that just one third of teachers rated student behavior at O’Brien as under control in classes and common spaces. “At that point, they felt behaviors were bad and they had very few options to deal with them. We were working hard to reduce suspensions, so there were just very few options for what they could do to deal with disruptive behavior,” said Morgan-Thompson. “Teachers need to be able to teach, students need to be able to learn and teachers didn’t feel that was happening.”

That’s when she began asking her staff to enroll in district-offered climate and restorative practice training. “This was about giving teachers tools to know how to work with kids, emphasizing that relationships are at the core of what makes climate work,” said Morgan-Thompson. “It was about making a school welcoming, so that kids know that when they come here, the adults care about them, know about them, and have their best interest at heart. Kids need to know we’re not looking to punish them, but to help them learn how to do what they need to do.”

Suspensions and expulsions in the early grades disproportionately affect black and Hispanic boys.

On the latest midyear audit, said Morgan-Thompson, 73 percent of O’Brien teachers rated student behavior as under control.

Related: The painful backlash against ‘no-excuses’ school discipline

Underlying any discussion about school culture at O’Brien is the reality that, in stark contrast to its students, 80 percent of the school’s teachers are white. Physical education and health teacher Stephen Higgins, who has taught at O’Brien since 1999, is no stranger to how a racial disconnect between students and teachers may impact children. A native of East Hartford, he recalled being one of two African American students in his elementary school, an experience that forced him to constantly, “adapt who I was because no one looked or sounded like me. There really wasn’t anything in my life outside of home — from the curriculum, the teachers, most of the things we were doing — that represented me in my own life.”

Today, Higgins said the process for handling a student in trouble is entirely different from just a few years ago. “Now we think about what are the problems surrounding this: Is it an issue of independence, an issue of mastery, is this child missing a sense of belonging?” Teachers then consult an intervention book to find an appropriate intervention. “We take in the whole child and when we try an intervention, we give those interventions an opportunity to have an impact. Whereas before, you wouldn’t even look at that. You’d just say: ‘The kid’s being disrespectful.’”

Having taught at O’Brien for nearly two decades, Higgins described the school’s former approach to discipline as guilt-inducing. “When you’re suspending that many kids, you can’t feel good. Children felt misunderstood, their deeper values and intentions, it hurt relationships between families and students and teachers,” he said.

Research on the negative impact of exclusionary discipline on young students is clear, said Dianna R. Wentzell, Ph.D., commissioner of education for the Connecticut State Department of Education. “When people talk about the school-to-prison pipeline, it begins with children’s first experience of school. Suspensions and expulsions create academic deterioration, disconnection, and disengagement for our kids,” said Wentzell. However, when teachers are given the tools to handle student behavior in ways that de-escalate difficult situations, and teach students how to regulate their own emotions and behavior, said Wentzell, the outcome for children is entirely different.

“Relationship” is a word that O’Brien teachers and administrators use frequently now. In fact, establishing and maintaining strong relationships with students and their families has become a sort of mantra in the O’Brien new order. Bridging the gap between school and home is one key component to understanding, and working with, behavior issues in school, particularly in the early years when children are learning basic social coping skills. “When we see our youngest learners exhibiting certain behaviors at school, we’re really talking about a family in need, and a need for access to services, sometimes mental health or other services,” said Wentzell. “So, organizing the network of services that are needed to support the child has been another area of focus for us.”

Meanwhile, gym teacher Higgins, who is ready to become a school principal after earning his Sixth-Year Certificate in Educational Leadership, has been pondering a question about equity. It’s a question he can’t get out of his mind. “The empathy I feel for my three daughters is crazy,” said Higgins. “I can always empathize and I’m always trying to re-teach skills because I know they’re going to need them. So the question I can’t stop thinking about is: Am I able to take that same level of empathy and re-apply it to my students at school? That’s when it gets real.”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about race and equity and early education.

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To the Editor,

Thank you for this great article. Is your organization considering adding an option to to share articles on LinkedIn.

Thank you in advance for your response.

- from Dr. Susanne Cappendijk, Jun 05, 2017

Dear Dr. Cappendijk,

You are welcome to copy the link and paste it into your LinkedIn account. I will pass on your request for a LinkedIn button to our web staff.

Thank you for your letter,

Lillian Mongeau

Engagement Editor

- from Lillian Mongeau, Jun 05, 2017

we need to "stop treating little kids like little adults". We also need to begin understanding much more deeply how learning, attention, motivation, is aided or hurt by our various treatments of our students, especially our younger students. I use a lot of humor, shorter work times, more ease of pace, more silliness, and much more one on one with my students. Of course I also have much more insight toward students using my environmental model teaching and learning. My learning theory will go to all on request and has many applications for students and adults. It offers a much better definition of average stress which can be used to help students and adult continually improve their lives.

For this letter in regard to elementary classroom management, I am pasting my Canter variation, which totally "unlike Canter's model", uses a much better and helpful approach for students.

By lynn mayfieldga@gmail.com 478-387-6586

MY Canter System variation is great for elementary students

Today’s elementary classrooms are filled with much instability and stress with students coming in from many different environments. Many of those environments are definitely not conducive for learning and motivation to learn. I grew tired many years ago at the many power based teachers who used very strict, authoritarian styles to control their students. The very practices they used only ensured good behavior out of fear and little or no benefit to change in student behavior and much less helpful in creating students more motivated to learn in and out of the classroom.

Students today need a more complex classroom management strategy, one that will provide more modeling of the peace, lightness, care, and yes, also provide the modeling and atmosphere for building more ease of learning and intrinsic reward for students from environments not normally receiving such modeling of care, peace, and good one-on-one instruction. This more advanced method is the only way to help build up students so they will have the skills to learn and enjoy learning more independently. Only by creating more intrinsic reward in students will they be able to compete on a more even scale with students from more affluent environments. My Canter Variation works toward this goal. I hope others will also see the nuances my Canter Variation uses to help create a more positive, peaceful learning environment for students.

I use a Canter system or my variation to manage my elementary classrooms. I call it the Canter System or use of checks to give proper due to Lee Canter who developed the system. I do not follow any one system and not his program. I developed my own system based on my needs and intent to help create a more peaceful learning environment for my students. The consequences and rewards are needed to help maintain this environment. My system is “very positive and helpful”, not controlling. It is designed to model all of the very good things students need.

I provide good, positive reinforcers and make these rewards contingent on good behavior. I begin by drawing up a Canter Board with my students' names on it with little squares beside each student's name. You will probably need more than one board for a large classroom. A model of this is shown on the last page. Note site has those pictures not on hard copy here.

Before I draw names on the board, I take it to a local office supply store or school and have it laminated. Then I can use a water erasable ink to write the students' names and checks on the board (you can also write the names in and then laminate it). I go over with my students the rules of the classroom and post them on the wall so each student is informed of what is expected. When a new or unforeseen situation arises, we talk it over or I make a decision whether or not an action will be allowed.

I need to point out that younger students have short attention spans. I do not work them more than 45 to 55 minutes without a break. I also use my knowledge of attention spans (time on task relative to attention and interest), frustration tolerance (making sure my material is on or just ahead of present learning level), and fatigue limits (length of time on task relative to work applied -shorter or longer time depending on task) to help ward off the potential for misbehavior. I make a concerted effort to make up and use my instruction more carefully along with some good one-on-one and other lighthearted support to help alleviate misbehavior. I admonish my students that before they become frustrated or tense about anything, to raise their hand and let me help them. I may give a check one minute and provide good support or one-on-one the next minute. The Canter allows me to isolate my discipline from my teaching. I can give a check one minute and then provide good one-on-one the next minute. In addition, I do not use my system for lack of or not performing academic work. I want to make learning self-motivating, and also I desire to maintain better student relations for learning. If a student is not performing the work, I simply tell the student to remain quiet, not to do any other activity, and not to disturb the rest of the class. When we do have a break, that student is not allowed to participate in that break (if it means computer or other good things).

When first using the board with a new class, the kids are very skeptical at first and will test it out. They will cut up just to see what will happen. I simply smile, go my board, and immediately begin making checks for each student’s misbehavior. This is cute at first, but then when the first reinforcement (about every hour and a half) arrives, the students who reached (three or four squares depending on your taste) have to watch in dismay while the other students are enjoying those great reinforcers: Hershey’s Kisses, computer time, coke break, recess, etc. I do not give group rewards. I feel this hurts the individuals who are behaving or rewards the few who do not. If a misbehavior occurs after filling the squares for the present, upcoming reinforcer, I then begin making checks for the subsequent reinforcer. Usually after a day or two, most (albeit for one or two) are willing to listen and follow instructions the first time. After about three or four days, even the most defiant student learns that it pays to behave and follow instructions. My trips to the Canter Board greatly decrease.

I do not give a punisher. Many teachers make the mistake of using negatives or punishers on the Canter Board. This will not control behavior as well. I include certain normal activities such as outside break time, computer time, and other good things I do for my students each day. This system may not be very practical for the middle and high schools where positive reinforcers are difficult to implement such as Fun Fridays.

I am a special education teacher for emotionally handicapped, and I use a Time Out Room for out-of-control behavior. However, with the Canter System, this room is rarely used. I find the Canter system great for keeping peace in the classroom. I can be providing one-on-one or teaching a group. Then when a student is misbehaving, I can continue with my lesson and without breaking stride, quietly make a check on the board as I am talking with another student or explaining something else to the class. This way, needless contact and verbal communication with the misbehaving student is minimized and time on task continues more efficiently (no disruptions). Also after filling a block, I continue if needed, making checks in each block of subsequent reinforcers. The Canter board allows me the freedom to make one or more checks for a given offense. I may give 4 checks for disrespect. In the case of physical threat or harm, I will give 4 to all checks at once by drawing a line through the sections. I don’t play. For younger students, say kindergarten, First, and Second Grade, I may remove all the checks every hour and start all over again. I may also, immediately reward students with a reinforce, “perhaps a Hershey’s Kiss” when say a child acts out in some way, which is totally wrong or violent toward another child, verbal or physical. I will reward the offended child the perpetrator’s Hershey’s Kiss and his own reward also. I may even increase the reward for that student. I can carry my note pad with me and even request lunch room workers, librarians, coaches, other teacher to let me know if some student is acting out in a bad way when I am not present. I will carry my note pad with me in the hall, during trips to the restrooms, the lunchroom, the playground, etc. I do keep my eyes open to ensure everyone is safe from harm.

I begin each day with a clean slate, with the exception of bad behavior at the end of the previous day. This is added to the next day’s first reinforcer. However, I do accumulate and reward more favorably consistent good behavior and for the group when there is a small group trying to break the system: for one week (Fun Friday) and up to 6 weeks (pizza).

I give some form of reinforcer about every hour or later for my students: Hershey's Kisses, etc. along with normal activities such as recess and/or other good things. I learned later it is not necessary to extinguish misbehavior immediately by providing sufficient reinforcers. The effect of not being rewarded weighs in just as heavily as the reinforcers themselves, so even little reinforcers over time, have the same effect. I also provide fun activities each week (they never know when). We make pies, cakes, cookies, or sandwiches. We have activities such as drawing, craft pop-sickle sticks, candles, and kites that really fly.

The most important role my Canter system plays in helping my students is I am able to model stability in classroom. When the time comes to have order after coming into the classroom or settling down after an activity, I just say something like, “I like the way Lashonda is in her seat; I like the way Billy is in his seat, and I like the way Janeka is in her seat. This signals to my students that I need them in their seats. They learn this early. I don’t have to raise my voice. I am at ease and can concentrate on the work at hand. I can speak softly and help students one-on-one without disruption and provide that model to my students in terms of reinforcing the delicate skills of listening, reading, and writing. The climate in the classroom stays peaceful. Learning is best achieved in a peaceful environment. The Canter Board allows me to provide reinforcements and remain separate from the consequences.

By modeling this to my students, they learn to take their time and do better. I hope they learn enough to model this stability to others, perhaps if necessary, their parents. The Canter System should be a standard operating procedure for all teachers in the elementary grades. Figure on page 6.

My learning theory will provide all of us with two large variables of learning improvement. I feel this theory is more important than my Canter System variation. This theory provides two large, cognitive tools we can use to model and teach students how to approach their lives both inside and outside school more delicately to continually improve their ability to think, learn, and reflect (thinking more before acting or self-control). In the classroom, this is quite valuable. By helping students through modeling and teaching them and their parents how to lower layers of mental frictions, we help ease and reduce psychological suffering. By helping students and adults learn how to more permanently reduce layers of mental frictions, we improve with each removed layer, our ability to think, learn, and change. This helps to improve learning and reduces behavior problems. The second tool I continually use with my students is in approaching mental work, especially new mental work, situations or problems more slowly at first and allowing their knowledge, confidence, and experience to create the pace naturally. Pace and intensity will increase and factor naturally over time. These tools are important for intrinsic reward and motivation in mental areas. In terms of classroom management, they are valuable for reducing psychological distress and helping to extend reflection time. Thus providing students with tools for longer reflection times and better self-esteem, decision-making, and self-control. So reinforcers are fine, but we also need to integrate many other things to help students improve their thinking, learning, self-control, and motivation to learn, - mental reward received for mental work expended.

I will send copies of my Canter Board drawings to all on request. This is a sample of my Canter Board (next page). You may need two or three boards to hold the names of all the students. You can use many different kinds of reinforcers or other rewards for good behavior. While I do believe greatly in prevention and providing students with tools for self-control and esteem.

When using poster board material, I find these measurements work for me. I must say that the bottom measurements of 7” with 1& ¾” squares may leave an extra quarter inch for the last square. Remember, I only use “three sets” of “ 4 squares” on my Canter Board. The extra set was just to show you what you can add. I use these measurements just to be safe. I use a light pencil when first setting up my lines on the board. If I make a mistake, I can then easily erase. When I am satisfied, it is correct, I then begin using fine point markers to finish the lines and squares.

It is important to use two or three (more if you like) clean yardsticks to make the colored lines for the board. Also it pays to wait until last before drawing any black lines. I learned the hard way that after one or two passes with the markers (even with light colors), I leave some ink on the side of the yardstick. If I happen to drag the yardstick or move it slightly on the surface of the poster board, it will tend to leave a residue ink smear on the board. It pays in time and effort to keep some clean paper towels handy and wipe the side of the yard stick two or more times after you make a couple of passes with the colored ink. The same thing goes for keeping your hands clean all the time. While drawing, you may pick up some ink from a line and accidentally smear it on the board.

I use a board like this for my students. It has only three sets of squares. I have also removed the labeling of rewards or reinforcers and have added another name. This enables me to use two boards for 22 students or three boards for 33 students.

This is a sample of my Canter Board (next page). You can use many different kinds of reinforcers or other rewards for good behavior. When I make my board from poster material, I only use three sets of reinforcers. I only have enough room for this much and keep my board visible for the students to see. The fourth set is simply another reinforcer you may want to use for students making it through the week without bad days. While I do believe greatly in prevention and providing students with tools for self-control and esteem, I also know that students do need to be disciplined for breaking the rules.

These were my old measurements for Canter Boards. Perhaps better than these is simply to have the poster board going down with just enough room for one set of reinforcers and checks and allowing for twice as many names of students for each Canter Board. This could be far easier to use; the checks can always be erased after a prior reinforce is given during an hourly break or other time.

Each Square -- long

When using poster board material, I find these measurements work for me. I must say that the bottom measurements of 7” with 1& ¾” squares may leave an extra quarter inch for the last square. Remember, I only use “three sets” of “ 4 squares” on my Canter Board. The extra set was just to show you what you can add. I use these measurements just to be safe. I use a light pencil when first setting up my lines on the board. If I make a mistake, I can then easily erase. When I am satisfied, it is correct, I then begin using fine point markers to finish the lines and squares.

I must add, it is important to use two or three (more if you like) clean yardsticks to make the colored lines for the board. Also, it pays to wait until last before drawing any black lines. I learned the hard way that after one or two passes with the markers (even with light colors), I leave some ink on the side of the yardstick. If I happen to drag the yardstick or move it slightly on the surface of the poster board, it will tend to leave a residue ink smear on the board. It pays in time and effort to keep some clean paper towels handy and wipe the side of the yard stick two or more times after you make a couple of passes with the colored ink. The same thing goes for keeping your hands clean all the time. While drawing, you may pick up some ink from a line and accidentally smear it on the board. Another board on Next page -

I use a board like this for my students. It has only three sets of squares. I have also removed the labeling of rewards or reinforcers and have added another name. This enables me to use two boards for 22 students or three boards for 33 students.

- from lynn oliver, Jun 28, 2017