contactHow these programs are making things worse

Child arrested in school for burpingOn March 4, 2015, I had the privilege of keynoting the National Youth At Risk Conference for the second time. In meeting with many of the participants who attended the keynote and my follow-up session, as well as what I’ve observed in my visits to schools around the country and in feedback from educators worldwide, I am dismayed to see that we are still, in general, looking for a bigger hammer for dealing with discipline problems and academic failure.

The concerns I expressed in my 2001 book, Creating Emotionally Safe Schools, have, if anything, gotten worse. Fourteen years later, the numbers haven’t changed much. (Please contact me if you have specific data that indicates a significant change.) So I thought it might be time to add yet another excerpt from this book to address the concerns that educators continue to report.

The following excerpt comes from Chapter 17, ”Behavioral Safety: Discipline and Cooperation,“ from Creating Emotionally Safe Schools © Deerfield Beach, FL: Health Communications, Inc., 2001). This material was copied and adapted taken from the final draft of the manuscript and may vary slightly from the final publication. All resources are listed in the online bibliography of this book.

“I was always the ring leader of my groups of friends. Instead of reeling me back in, teachers waged a war with me, and I, being stubborn and strong-willed, did not give in. In the end, we all ended up losing.”—Cori Jennings

“Never underestimate the power of a child’s need to safe face.”—Middle school teacher

The window of what is considered to be acceptable can be remarkably narrow in a school setting, and students who have trouble living up to academic, social or behavioral expectations can quickly find themselves on a pretty slippery slide. Many children who are identified as behavior problems, some as early as kindergarten, experience similar patterns in school.

Typically, the relationships with their teachers—undoubtedly the most important ingredient in preventing conflicts and disruptions—is not good. Most describe the impatience, accusations, sarcasm, criticism, insults, threats, contempt, and humiliation they withstand from teachers as being remarkably common. Once labeled, these students are often the first ones suspected when anything went wrong. (One of the teens I interviewed who had served time in a juvenile detention center for his increasingly violent outbursts in school admitted, “I was so tired of them accusing me of stuff I didn’t do, I figured I might as well make it worth their while.”)

Any students who do not fit the “ideal student” profile—which generally includes qualities like being reasonably curious, industrious, cooperative, quiet, and able to keep up with the rest of the class—are likely to encounter adult reactions intended to squeeze them into that role. Our most common strategies rely on our students’ desire to avoid our anger or gain our conditional approval. In terms of achieving our short-term objectives, these strategies may work often enough, especially with some of our younger students, to persuade us to use them over and over again.

But as Gordon suggests, the short-term outcomes may belie the costs. At some point, the need to impress peers or protect their dignity is going to come up against their need for teacher approval. And in terms of dealing with our anger and its repercussions, for some kids, the worst we can do to them is far less than what they get at home; confronted with our best threats, many of the children I’ve worked with just shrug. (And while some may see this observation as a means of justifying increasingly painful, objectionable, or distasteful punishments, be assured that escalating our power struggles will, in the end, only make things worse.)

When we find ourselves more and more on the losing end of a win-lose (or, perhaps more appropriately, no-win) engagement with a student, at some point, it’s going to get awfully tempting to make that student somebody else’s problem.[1] Although we will talk mightily about wanting kids to take responsibility for solving their own problems, many of us can hardly resist the urge to send misbehaving students to the office, or rely on parents to correct the behaviors that are bugging or disrupting us. Here, too, there are certainly enough times that the office colludes or the parents take action that once again, we believe we are on the right track. But in the long run, these practices will come back to haunt us.

Many teachers, on hearing that these long-sanctioned customs actually undermine their authority, credibility, and professionalism, feel a combination of outrage and betrayal. I know I did. Fortunately, there are more effective alternatives. (However if our thinking continues along the lines of worrying about what to do to the students for punishment in place of calling parents or sending them to the principal’s office, we’re still thinking inside the original win-lose, rules-and-punishment box.)

For many challenging children, the next step in our current system is a special education placement. Social worker Debra Sugar noticed that the majority of her middle school clients were placed in these classes “with a behavior disorder eligibility.” Sugar saw many students moved to environments that were more restrictive and better able “to enforce a stricter system of discipline.” Typically this system included “a long list of [negative] consequences” which had little impact on improving the students’ prosocial skills.[2]

My own experiences support her findings. Although quiet, non-performing students would be referred for special ed consideration, most of the referrals I’ve seen equated students’ learning difficulties with their behavior. In this case, the squeakiest wheels were often the most disruptive students, and the first to be identified for placement, predominantly on the basis of how they acted in class. In many settings, labels like ADD or ADHD are applied rather liberally to these children, although there are those who suggest that many of these kids may not have attention deficits at all. Instead, as Thomas Armstrong argues, the “deficits” are actually in the area of what researcher Russell Barkley calls “rule-governed behavior,”[3] meaning that the children have a lower response (or greater indifference) to the possibility of negative consequences than some adults would like.

As with any procedure in a reactive, power-based model, there are increasingly severe levels of displacement, and as students’ behavior gets more disruptive, so, too, does the relative exile from the classroom. Students with more serious discipline problems can be suspended for a specific amount of time or barred from school altogether (expulsion). A report from Connecticut’s State Department of Education indicated that “nearly 14 percent of public school students in the state were expelled or suspended from school at least once during the 1998-1999 school year.”

The report also noted that most of the violations “were minor infractions like cutting classes, talking back to teachers or using foul language,” but that the numbers also represented “more violent offenses like fighting, making threats or bringing weapons to school.” In the previous year, national statistics included more than three million suspensions and 90,000 expulsions, although overall, the percentage of students involved is thought to be seven percent or less.[4]

By any standards, the numbers are high. And they beg some important questions. For example, what happens to these kids? Do the actions imposed by the school bring them more in line with the behavioral standards we desire? What kind of support was offered to help the young people change the way they acted, or did the schools simply rely on the threat of more time away from school to effect a change? Suspension puts kids who are often already lagging academically even further behind in their classwork.

One report claimed that these kids were at greater risk for missing classes and eventually dropping out. More disturbing was the implication that, at least in certain settings, “school officials encourage their departure,” meeting with kids, once they start getting in trouble, to suggest that the kids either enroll in the local vocational institute or get a job instead of returning to school.[5] Punitive actions that restrict students’ access to school affects large numbers of kids, with ethnic minorities as well as non-traditional learners most at risk.[6] To varying degrees, this practice has been going on for decades, and is common enough to be known as a “push-out” policy.[7]

Nonetheless, these punitive practices received a big boost when policymakers started jumping on the zero-tolerance bandwagon. This movement began in 1994 when a number of states adopted federal guidelines which required mandatory expulsion for certain offenses. Originally focused on firearms possession on school property, in many states, this mandate grew “to include possession of drugs and alcohol, as well as a number of other objectionable behaviors.” Supporters acclaimed the need “for tough laws to bring a sense of order to our schools.”[8]

This approach had additional appeal, however, suggesting that the use of by-the-book penalties would, by eliminating discretion, reduce the likelihood of protests and litigation from parents. But, this has not been the case. For, as columnist John Leo observes, “one-size-fits-all punishment merely removes one form of arbitrariness (Shall we punish him or let him off with a warning?) with another (Shall we consider zinc cough drops a drug offense?)”[9] And even in the absence of discretion, the uniformity supposedly built into these policies is rarely observed.

A teacher from an upscale high school told me that one of her students had been suspended when it was discovered that he had been using pictures of his teachers for target practice in his garage. The student was reinstated after his parents showed up with “a bank of lawyers.” (Evidently, suspended students whose parents can’t afford lawyers tend to stay suspended until their penalty is served.) And according to a 1997 report by the Department of Education, despite a call for immediate dismissal, “only 31% of all students caught with guns on school property were expelled” during the previous school year. Additionally, “less than half were suspended for more than five days, and less than 20 percent were referred to alternative school programs.”[10] Evidently, the value of zero is not absolute.

But that is hardly the issue. Kids whose behaviors range from annoying to dangerous get caught in this dragnet; along with the drugs and weapons violations are students suspended for quarrelling over a magazine, bringing a nail clipper to school, carrying a bottle of Advil or using mouthwash on school grounds.[11] (Is it any wonder that so many kids have so little respect for authority?) Once again, a policy lands in place which allows us to remove students rather than seeing their behavior as a call for interventions which would improve skills, sensitivity, self-control or common sense.

From author Frank Blair’s assertion that these “results have been moderately successful at best,” I’m assuming that the “success” to which he is referring has to do with a slight decrease of these “objectional behaviors” (or perhaps a reduction in the number of students perpetrators) on campus, and not to changes either in the students’ behavior or in the dynamics or climate which may have been a factor in students’ perceiving these behaviors to be necessary in the first place. Besides, as more than one teen admitted, zero-tolerance policies did little more than challenge them to be more careful about getting caught.

The desire to get the disruptive kids out of the classroom may be entirely understandable, but it removes them from the very environment in which they could be doing some serious learning. Whether in “time out” or in the street, kids gain none of the potential benefits of classroom instruction and positive adult-student interaction. Educator Walter Doyle observes, “There is little evidence that suspension is, by itself, educative. Indeed, suspension denies educative opportunities for precisely those students who need them most.” Additionally, Doyle says, “suspension can be inherently rewarding, a vacation from a setting the student is likely to find aversive.”[12] (Barring kids from school as a punishment for lateness or truancy defies comprehension.)

He goes on to cite one study which showed that schools with low suspension levels “had high levels of community involvement, emphasized instruction rather than control and had a student-centered environment.”[13] McPartland and his colleagues acknowledge the fact that “some students are so hostile to authority that they need an alternative setting for their education. But at some point,” they advise, our schools “must stop rejecting difficult cases and start finding ways to adapt school to the diverse needs of its students.”[14]

As schools broaden their picture of what constitutes “ideal students,” I wholeheartedly believe we’ll see significantly fewer incidents that would inspire the adults to remove kids from school. However, even under the best conditions, we need to think about adding or expanding some of the alternative programs that have been successful in reaching young people who have difficulty functioning in traditional settings, or those considered to be dangerous to a setting that does not offer alternative programs, including those which offer services such as counseling, rehabilitation, community volunteers, business mentorship programs, peer support, EQ and social skills development, and appropriate academic placement and instruction, generally in low teacher-student ratio classes.[15] The untenable alternative, as Frank Blair, cautions, results in large numbers of students being “expelled to the streets.”[16]

Excerpt from Chapter 17, ”Behavioral Safety: Discipline and Cooperation,“ from Creating Emotionally Safe Schools © Deerfield Beach, FL: Health Communications, Inc., 2001). This material was copied and adapted taken from the final draft of the manuscript and may vary slightly from the final publication. All resources are listed in the online bibliography of this book.

A note about the photo: This image accompanied a story about a 13-year-old Albuquerque student who was arrested for burping in class in December, 2013. I am not making this up.

[1]In many settings, this step is reserved for the fourth or fifth violation of a particular rule, although this number is fairly arbitrary and depends on the particular formula being used. I’ve seen various systems set up with warnings or punishments of increasing severity depending on the number of times students get caught doing the same thing over and over. There is no incentive for children to change their behavior until it gets uncomfortable enough for them to consider not repeating it, which, incidentally, doesn’t always happen. Further, most of these warnings or “consequences,” such as yelling, verbal reminders or writing the student’s name on the board, do little more than give attention to the misbehavior. For kids whose misbehavior is indeed attention-seeking, these tactics only serve as reinforcers, actually strengthening the very behaviors they’re supposed to extinguish. This is one of the reasons many of us find ourselves punishing the same kids all the time.
[2]Sugar, 5
[3]Armstrong, The Myth of the A.D.D. Child, 18.
[4]Paul Zielbauer, “Discipline Figures Prompt Call to Improve School Behavior,” (July 7, 2000). Available: The New York Times Web site, [Internet, WWW], Address: http://www.nytimes.com/library/national/regional/070700ct-students-edu.html. Note: The report noted that the national statistics “revealed only the number of these punishments, not the number of students who received them.”
[5]Rudi Keller, “Some Dropoouts Claim Schools Pushed Them,” Albuquerque Journal (April 29, 2000). Note: At one high school, typically only 50 percent of the freshman class makes it to graduation.
[6]Zielbauer; Quarles, 24; McQueen, “School Violence Stereotypes.”
[7]Quarles, 24; Keller, “Some Dropouts.”
[8]Frank E. Blair, “Does Zero Tolerance Work?” Principal, Vol. 79, No. 1 (Sept. 1999): 36.
[9]John Leo, “‘Zero Tolerance’ Policies Distort Discipline of Schools,” Albuquerque Journal (Dec. 10, 1999)
[10]Blair, 37.
[11]Leo, “Zero-Tolerance.
[12]Walter Doyle, “Classroom Management Techniques and Student Discipline.” Paper prepared for the Student Discipline Strategies Project, sponsored by the Education and Social Division of the Office of Research, OERI, Us Department of Education, December, 1986; also Quarles, 24.
[13]Doyle.
[14]McPartland, et al.
[15]Quarles, 24; Doyle; Sugar.
[16]Blair, 37.

Related Links:

Other excerpts from Creating Emotionally Safe Schools:

Pretty and Popular: Discrimination and Belonging

Spare the Rod: The Case Against Corporal Punishment
Brave New World: The Changing Role of Schools
Bearing Witness: Support for Children in Crisis
Stressful or Painful School Events and Experiences that Can Compromise Emotional Safety

Test Time: Bringing Balance and Sanity to Our Schools
No Child Left Behind Parody: The Football Version!

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