K-12

OPINION: A fresh start on school discipline isn’t optional — especially for schools serving underrepresented students

Changing student behaviors through 'high expectations and high support'

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It’s never been more important to take a new look at how we think about school discipline. We need to shift away from thinking of discipline as the thing you do to punish a student who is acting out or to rein in a chaotic class.

Our organizations are working with educators across the country to implement research-based approaches that prevent incidents from happening in the first place, like focusing on relationships, developing students’ social and emotional skills, and refining what adults model in the face of conflict.

Teachers who tap into students’ potential by building strong, individualized and trusting relationships with students — and their families — get better academic results and have fewer behavioral issues. One teacher at a Discipline Revolution Project partner school asked families not just to review the standard school supply list, but also what he should “know about your child to be able to support them being their best self.” It’s no wonder that teachers who greet students in a differentiated manner at the classroom door get enthusiastic kid reviews — and are more effective.

All students benefit from this approach, but it’s particularly important for schools serving immigrants, students of color, students with disabilities, and students identifying as LGBTQIA who are often affected by traumatic experiences in or outside school. Children at Risk reports that 66 percent of staff noticed behavioral problems with students related to stress around immigration.

Now more than ever, schools need to carefully consider how to build emotionally and physically safe school cultures and climates. As Educators for Excellence member Theresa summarized: “If kids don’t feel comfortable, safe and heard in the school — seen as human — then they don’t want to show up, physically or mentally.”

Too often, alternatives to harsh discipline are cast as promoting chaos, but those who have experience with these methods see them differently. A student in a school making these changes put it this way: “Some people see ‘strict’ as bad. I don’t. ‘Strict’ means you know the narrow band of behavior that is expected, and you get immediate feedback when you aren’t in the band.” Students thrive when norms and expectations are clear, they are invested in upholding them and they receive real-time coaching about how to meet them.

Related: Is the effort to curb strict discipline going too far, too fast?

Both adults and kids need to modify their behavior from time to time — for example, when they want to change eating or exercise habits. The least effective ways to imprint new behavioral patterns is to lecture, punish or lower expectations. “High expectations and high support” are more successful in changing behaviors because there’s clarity about what students need to do and the support for them to learn, re-learn and practice those skills.

Educators who remain firm, consistent and empathetic, including and especially when students make mistakes and even challenge teachers, are far more likely to de-escalate conflict and prevent secondary incidents. All kids — but especially those who have experienced trauma — shift into fight-or-flight mode when confronted with conflict. Adults who are consistent and predictable, including in times of stress, are more likely to create the conditions in which chronic conflict dissipates and students learn new habits.

Classrooms and schools where students are really busy doing this hard work that is carefully planned have fewer discipline challenges. High-quality curricula are crucial, freeing teachers up to truly differentiate their approaches and to think deeply about building relationships. Kids who struggle with reading and aren’t taught how to read in a research-based manner are much more likely to act out. Content that is engaging and relevant can motivate students and literally change their brains.

Courageous educators are going beyond talking about the obvious biases that we all internalize to take action. We’ve seen schools that are using peer observation protocols and even an iPhone application to log things like who gets called on, who gets positive versus negative reinforcement, who gets higher-order thinking versus recall questions, and other details to surface patterns and correct course.

Related: With a teacher like me, ‘Would I have turned out better?’

As students head back to class, it’s on us, as adults, to ensure that we are creating the necessary conditions for learning. “We can’t keep feeding the school-to-prison pipeline,” says Marvin Pierre, EdLoC member and founder of 8 Million Stories. “Our harsh school discipline policies are leading to an increase in repeat offenses, higher student dropout rates and a direct pipeline to the juvenile justice system.”

As former teachers, we recognize that adopting non-punitive approaches to discipline represents a significant departure from the status quo in many schools and will be difficult. Teachers and administrators need tools, practice, reinforcement, coaching and time to reflect with their colleagues.

We can’t afford not to make this investment. Together, we can break the cycle for so many students that starts by sending them out of class instead of working with them to learn new habits, and that ends with them facing the criminal justice system.

With the start of a new school year, we have the gift of reflecting and retooling everything. Let’s shift from an approach to discipline that is about reacting and controlling to one that is instead about preventing and teaching.

This story about changing school discipline was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up here for our newsletter.
Cami Anderson is CEO of The Discipline Revolution Project.
Layla Avila is CEO/Executive Director of Education Leaders of Color.
Evan Stone is co-founder and co-CEO of Educators for Excellence.
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Cami Anderson

Cami Anderson is CEO of The Discipline Revolution Project. See Archive

Layla Avila

Layla Avila is CEO/Executive Director of  Education Leaders of Color. See Archive

Evan Stone

Evan Stone is the co-founder and co-CEO of Educators 4 Excellence, a national teacher organization that seeks to elevate the voices of teachers in policy… See Archive

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