I learned something recently that shocked and horrified me: the United States prison system forecasts its space demands based on current discipline data captured in our schools.
This practice even has a disconcerting name: the school-to-prison-pipeline.
Approximately 3.3 million suspensions and over 100,000 expulsions occur each year. This number has nearly doubled since 1974, with rates escalating in the mid-1990s as zero tolerance policies that remove students from school environments were widely adopted.
Combine this with the fact that the USA is the world’s leading jailer, and you can appreciate the gravity of the situation.
Think about what actually happens when a student is suspended or expelled. Perhaps the environment for the others is improved, but at what cost?
Fear, anger and mistrust, as the punished child is thrown back to the original environment that helped produce the fear, anger and mistrust he or she carried in the first place, along with greater validation for hating the system.
Psychologists always look immediately at the experiences and situations surrounding a person’s youth in searching for the reasons behind the issues and emotional challenges they have as adults.
If perspectives and outlooks are defined by the experiences of our formative years, then the biggest factor in addressing tendencies toward hostility, anger, fear and mistrust is how our hearts and minds are shaped during our youth.
This is why exclusionary disciplinary procedures, specifically zero tolerance policies, actually increase the probability of young people becoming resentful, hostile, and ultimately even incarcerated.
Lets put this in context. Each time a behavior incident occurs, everyone suffers. Certainly, the student on the receiving end of the disciplinary action suffers emotionally, socially and often academically. Numerous studies, such as this one by Talisha Lee at the University of Virginia, show a high correlation between suspension rates and dropout rates.
But these classroom disruptions also have a significant impact on the other students, because a teacher who spends large amounts of time dealing with discipline spends less time on instruction. Inevitably, the other students suffer.
The most important indirect consequence of misbehaving students is the potential for them to become roadblocks to the building of a successful school culture.
Education researchers have found that academic performance is closely related to school culture (Alsbury 2008), which Short & Greer (2002) define broadly as, “the norms within a school that can be influenced by a school’s teachers and principal.”
If the accepted norms of a school include order, respect and accountability, then academic achievement can be expected to increase. For example, a Wisconsin analysis of suspension results showed that decreasing suspensions by 5% yielded a 5% increase in math proficiency and a 3.5% increase in reading proficiency.
The conversation is rich with studies that indicate a negative relationship between the number of behavioral incidents and academic achievement (Lassen, Steele, & Sailor, 2006; Sugai, 2007; Reinke, Herman, & Stormont, 2013) at state, district and school levels.
In other words: reducing disruptive behavior and, therefore, disciplinary actions, can yield substantial achievement gains.
Additionally, doing so will increase teacher satisfaction and reduce turnover. And it will make the job of the principal and administration much more enjoyable and allow them to focus on strategic measures to improve the overall quality of education provided to their students.
What all of this adds up to is the need for more positive and restorative disciplinary approaches in our schools.
In the 2007/2008 school year, Arnall Middle School issued 1,154 disciplinary referrals. Any administrator would tell you that the least enjoyable part of his or her day is notifying parents and processing ISS (in-school suspensions), OSS (out-of-school suspensions), and expulsions.
1154 disciplinary referrals meant Arnall was dealing with at least 6 to 7 behavioral issues each day. The constant recurrence of behavior challenges and low academic performance of the school at that time was a clear sign that the school needed to change some of its practices.
Arnall’s Principal, Dr. Jan Franks, wanted to give all of her students the opportunity to “create lives for themselves that they could be proud of.”
To change school culture is a challenging, ambiguous task. Where does one even start?
For Arnall’s administration, it meant shifting perceptions about teaching and learning, disciplinary practices, and schoolwide expectations for all stakeholders.
It also meant utilizing Positive Behavioral Intervention and Supports, or PBIS, to combat the difficult circumstances and negative patterns.
Here are the four steps they implemented to positively change school culture:
Step 1 – Changing Perspectives
I’m confident that most educators share the belief that there are very few bad kids, and far more good kids who sometimes make bad decisions.
Keeping this perception in mind is at the heart and soul of the great work our educators are performing today. And it was the source of what Dr. Franks and her team did at Arnall Middle.
As a new principal taking on a school in the midst of restructuring and its second year of Needs Improvement, dealing with over 1000 disciplinary referrals in a year was daunting.
Arnall’s teachers believed they were doing their best and really didn’t see how to make the necessary changes. The school’s culture just wasn’t conducive to creating an environment where students could be emotionally and academically successful.
“We had a school full of great teachers and great students,” Dr. Franks says. “What really needed to happen was for us to examine our great people and our instructional practices. We needed a new way of seeing, which can only come from a different mindset.”
Dr. Franks set out to motivate and inspire every teacher to believe in the futures and capabilities of their students. And, as they began to do so, the conversations in staff meetings and throughout the hallways changed.
Central to any culture change in an organization is setting new expectations and implementing a new language around achieving them. Our thoughts and beliefs dictate our feelings, and our feelings drive our actions.
To change school culture at a fundamental level, you must change the way its staff thinks.
Step 2 – Changing Expectations
In my opinion, there is no job more difficult than being a classroom teacher. In addition to academics, they also teach character, compassion, and commitment to one’s own convictions.
The responsibility and opportunity that teaching provides are both limitless… and it’s a daily choice to evade the temptation to become complacent.
For Dr. Franks, this was a challenge that had to be met if Arnall were to undergo the cultural shift she was envisioning.
Initially, Dr. Franks saw students purposefully engaging in behaviors to get out of the instructional environment, and teachers feeling that they had exhausted all the tools in their toolbox.
However, the norm could no longer be the easy road of sending students to the office.
For example, one female student, defiant and difficult to reach, would take an aggressive posture that negatively impacted her relationships with students and teachers as well as her academic gains. At the end of her seventh grade year, she had been retained.
The following year, her instructor took a new path in trying to change her expectations and sense of place in the world around in her.
Through mindset-based social and emotional approaches between teacher, the student and her mother, this student recognized what she wanted and started to see her future in a positive light. She became an advocate for others, but most importantly, an advocate for herself. She started to believe in the possibilities for her life and to dream about her future.
By her changing her mindsets, she was able to see her true potential. She began taking high school level courses in her 8th grade year.
More and more, teachers were encouraged to proactively address issues in the classroom and focus on a more restorative (making things right) vs. punitive and exclusionary approach.
Step 3 – Positive Behavior Intervention
One thing I often notice in schools around the country is how they recognize athletic achievement. Most schools have large displays that celebrate the different sports teams and the stars of those squads.
Don’t worry – I’m not suggesting we stop recognizing excellence in athletics and building school spirit through sports.
However, I do believe it’s critical that we recognize other forms of excellence to a greater extent than most schools presently do.
At Arnall Middle, upon first entry, I noticed a board that celebrated a service project the students had executed for veterans. They’ve implemented our 7 Mindsets Academy program at Arnall, and there are examples throughout the school of students exemplifying positivity and assertiveness in their own lives.
They say that energy flows where attention goes, and I think this is true on all levels.
When we pay attention and recognize what students are doing right, that becomes the foundation of growth, and we see more of these behaviors. This is a big part of why so much intrinsic motivation is built up around athletics. Likewise, if we focus our energy on the negative things, unfortunately, those tend to expand and permeate the culture.
The best schools we’ve worked with execute a positive referral program. Teachers recognize great things students are doing in the classroom and refer them to the office for a positive behavior intervention. There, principals and other administrators take the opportunity to give parents a call in order to share and celebrate the students’ growth and achievement.
Step 4 – Restorative Discipline
The last critical piece Arnall put in place to impact and change school culture was a new discipline model. This manifested in a number of ways and places, but nowhere more than in the In-School Suspension room.
There, they posted signs and banners displaying the 7 Mindsets on the walls around the room. Seeing reminders that “Everything is Possible,” and “The Time is Now” visibly provided a clear set of values and expectations for how students ought to treat themselves, their school, and their classmates and teachers.
Upon entering the ISS room, discipline referees were asked to sit next to or under the mindset that, had it been utilized, would have created a different and better result for the student. The child would reflect, determine what should have been done differently, and develop a plan to “right the wrong.”
Nothing is more powerful in changing behavior than educators focusing on growth and viewing behavior issues as opportunities to develop rather than punish or make examples of students.
There will still be times for punitive discipline, but it should be used with restraint rather than as the go-to approach.
Change in School Culture and Student Behavior Issues at Arnall Middle School
Over the course of 8 years, the team at Arnall was able to reduce disciplinary referrals by an astounding 93%. That meant more students in the classroom, more time on instruction, and administrators focusing less on the daily discipline grind and more on highly valuable educational efforts.
Possibly most gratifying of all, their successes gave many teachers back what they most wanted when they got into education: the ability to connect in a meaningful way with their students, and feel the beautiful feeling one gets in making a positive impact a young person’s life.
Every instance in which a school invests in a child’s growth makes their school and the world a better place forever.