How to design school discipline to create a sense of belonging for students

"Although exclusionary discipline is often implemented with good intentions research has found that it increases rather than deters misbehavior, while also increasing risks of dropout, mental health challenges, and juvenile and adult incarceration," according to a new report from the Learning Policy Institute.

“I dropped out of school—actually, they kicked me out—because I didn’t want to give them my hat. It was real zero tolerance! I was expelled for defiance for putting a hat in my backpack instead of giving it to them. And I had bad experiences since preschool, so it was easy for me to be like [forget] this.”

The statement comes from one student featured in a new report from the Learning Policy Institute who witnessed firsthand the negative impact exclusionary discipline policies can have on students. While expulsions have become common practice in K12 schools, the research argues that they pose a significant threat to students’ well-being and sense of belonging. Instead, leaders should consider restorative practices as their primary method of addressing school discipline.

“Many schools use suspensions and expulsions with the intent of deterring student misbehavior and protecting other students from exposure to misbehavior,” the report reads. “Although exclusionary discipline is often implemented with good intentions research has found that it increases rather than deters misbehavior, while also increasing risks of dropout, mental health challenges, and juvenile and adult incarceration.”

Students are also expelled at disproportionate rates, the research adds. For instance, Black students are nearly four times more likely than white students to receive an out-of-school suspension and are given harsher discipline for the same behaviors as their peers.

The findings come at a time when school districts faced some of their toughest cases of student misbehavior, an issue that was only exacerbated by the pandemic. For instance, in response to growing behavior issues Kentucky lawmakers passed a bill in March that allows teachers to take immediate action to dismiss out-of-control students from the classroom. While it’s not meant to increase suspensions, according to Republican Tep. Timmy Truett, it’s a much-needed change that will give teachers and students the learning environment they deserve.

But as LPI’s report suggests, it’s time to consider other methods of discipline.

“There is growing recognition that a positive school climate is a necessary building block to support student learning,” the report reads. “As an alternative to exclusionary discipline, some schools have adopted restorative practices, which are designed to proactively improve relationships and to mend harm when conflict occurs—all without excluding students from school.”

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Leaders can promote restorative practices using two areas of focus:

Community-building: These practices are designed to create an “interconnected” school community and climate by focusing on depending student-staff relationships.

Repair practices: This approach is meant to bring together all stakeholders to address issues and take productive steps going forward, including conflict-responsive dialogues, mediation and harm-repair cycles.

“Any school or district adopting restorative practices will have its own unique journey,’ the report reads. “However, prior research and implementation guides point to approaches that may help schools and districts overcome typical implementation challenges and to accelerate the impact of restorative practices.”

Recommendations for leaders

The report concludes with five suggestions for leaders who are considering adopting such disciplinary policies:

  • Scrap zero-tolerance policies and punitive discipline frameworks and incorporate relational approaches.
  • Implement “indicators of exclusion, restorative practices and school climate into continuous improvement and accountability systems.”
  • Promote engagement and buy-in from school staff.
  • Invest in your staff so they can develop restorative mastery and expand access to restorative practices.
  • Offer long-term investment and support for the policy’s implementation.
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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