Do school suspensions really teach kids a lesson? Few principals think so

The majority of principals believe that suspending students is an ineffective way to help students reflect on their mistakes. Yet, it continues to be a dominant disciplinary practice.

For decades, principals have served as the final stop for misbehaved students as they decide which punishment fits the crime, so to speak. School suspensions are a common form of punishment to allow students to reflect on and learn from their poor decisions. Yet, for many school principals, the practice lacks merit. But why?

Exclusionary discipline practices, commonly known as school suspensions, have been in decline since peaking in 2010, according to a report from the Learning Policy Institute. Now, administrators are rethinking the practice altogether. A new survey from in collaboration with the RAND Corporation details the beliefs of more than 1,000 public school principals across the country surrounding school suspension practices. Here’s what they found:

Suspensions are meant to be ‘education,’ but they’re ineffective

More than 80 percent (82%) believe that the main reason they suspend students is to teach “appropriate skills” to students who misbehave so that they don’t make the same decisions in the future. However, only 12% agree that suspensions are effective in helping students reflect and learn from their behavior.

While administrators hope students learn their lesson after taking such disciplinary actions, few actually believe those actions lower a student’s chances of misbehaving again in the future. More than two-thirds (69%) agree expulsions don’t adequately solve discipline problems. Only 13% believe they do, while 18% say they have “mixed feelings.”

Despite these findings, most principals say the practice is necessary for student discipline.

“Results from our nationally representative survey show that while public school principals believe that the primary purpose of discipline is to teach students appropriate skills, most do not believe suspensions and expulsions effectively serve this purpose,” the survey reads. “And yet, few principals in our study went so far as to say suspensions are entirely unnecessary.”

The researchers also asked them if they would scrap exclusionary discipline practices if their school environments were more positive. Only 43% said yes.

So what’s the solution if most principals believe suspensions are ineffective, yet they’re unwilling to give up the practice? Well, according to the research, the answer isn’t entirely clear. However, it does offer some possibilities as to why school administrators continue to use this method of discipline:

  • Principals are forced to abide by their school’s zero-tolerance policies.
  • Some schools may not have the resources to adopt alternative solutions to suspensions.
  • Educators have simply become too accustomed to the practice.

Alternative solutions

For those who wish to change their school’s culture and disciplinary practices, there are several viable options. The National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP), for instance, offers three Positive Behavioral Interventions and Support as part of their 2017 issue of Principal Leadership. Let’s take a look at their recommendations:

  • Restorative chat: Its purpose is to support the student in understanding the consequences of their actions and give them the opportunity to repair them. This can be done through a simple conversation with the student and allow them to reflect on their actions. Below are some example questions administrators can ask to begin restorative chat with a student:
    • Tell me what happened.
    • What were you thinking at the time?
    • What do you think about it now?
    • Who does this affect?
    • What do you need to do about it?
    • How can we make sure this doesn’t happen again?
    • What can I do to help you?
  • Restitution: Similar to restorative chat, restitution focuses on teaching the student how to repair or eliminate damage caused by their mistakes. The key here is to implement a plan for the student to begin correcting the harm. Consider how to include those who were affected by the student’s behavior. Avoid humiliation and overly punitive tactics.
  • Skills coaching: This can be done in coordination with restorative chat and restitution. Using the previous practices, students must also learn the behaviors they were lacking in their previous mistakes. Its purpose is to teach and practice new social and behavioral skills appropriate in a classroom and school environment.

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Micah Ward
Micah Ward
Micah Ward is a District Administration staff writer. He recently earned his master’s degree in Journalism at the University of Alabama. He spent his time during graduate school working on his master’s thesis. He’s also a self-taught guitarist who loves playing folk-style music.

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