We Need to Teach the Behaviors We Value

As a mother of teenage boys and an educator of young children, I recognize the many developmental differences between the children I teach and the children I parent. But the effects of suspension and expulsion are virtually the same.

Last December, my 13-year-old son was asked to leave his private school.  The tangled combination of his Attention Deficit Disorder, social-emotional needs, and failing academic performance was such that the administration felt they “could no longer meet his needs.”  The effects of this “soft expulsion” were swift and dramatic, and left our family scrambling two weeks before the winter break. As a teacher and a parent, I could not accept the school’s decision.

I believe that to reduce the need to suspend or expel students, schools should work from a positive, restorative discipline model, rather than punitive–with a focus on clear expectations for behavior.  Such expectations for all students need to be developmentally appropriate, culturally responsive, engaging, and perhaps most importantly, practical.  

I start the year by teaching my kindergarteners which behaviors are acceptable within our school and which are not.  My intention is to be proactive, rather than reactive, because I can no longer assume that children come to us knowing how to ‘do school.’  Just as we would teach young children to learn to read, we must teach them prosocial behavior. For my son, the trauma of being removed very young from his drug-addicted birth parents directly affected his decision-making skills as a teenager.  His behavior―being disruptive in class and disrespectful toward his teachers―was understandably outside the rules and norms of his school’s behavior code. The school’s response was punitive: discipline referrals and detention, along with multiple meetings about how to keep his behavior contained.  As a parent, I would have preferred a plan that focused on positive choices so he could move forward.

As teachers, we are trained to understand developmental levels and appropriate expectations of academic, social, and emotional behavior. We care deeply about the little (and not so little) people who come to us every day, and we work hard to build relationships with them. However, there are often factors such as societal pressures, increased exposure to trauma, and lack of mental health support that lead to behaviors that are beyond what most teachers feel equipped to handle on a daily basis.  Teachers need training to identify those children whose behavior poses the greatest risk to their social development. We need resources that are researched-based, easy to learn and implement, and have positive impact on student behavior.   We need mental health support for our students, and timely responses from administration when we raise concerns about a child. We need clearly defined policies and descriptors of negative behavior in order to develop systems of supporting positive behavior. And we need training for teachers so they can be mindful of potential bias around race and gender and be culturally responsive as they design instructional supports to shape behavior.

If a student is expelled, school staff should create steps to ensure that the transition to the new setting is as smooth as possible.  Staying connected to families can lessen the stress and unrest that occur after an expulsion, and provide the incoming school with the data to allow the child a fresh start in their new school. I make no excuses for my son at his former school. His behavior was alarming, clearly impacting the ability of his teachers to teach, and his and his classmates’ ability to learn. The school did not have the resources to appropriately respond to his needs; there was no full-time counselor or mental health provider.  The reality is that some students pose a genuine risk to staff or other students because of their behavior and oftentimes, teachers and school staff have no other option but to remove that student from that educational setting. The line needs to be drawn at the safety of others; this cannot be endangered in any way, regardless of the underlying reason for the severe behavior.

My son was placed into our neighborhood public school, whose staff immediately set up a transition meeting. His teachers got to know him and modified his assignments. They changed where he sat in the classroom and he was allowed to join the basketball team.  The impact of all this was immediate and profound. My son became engaged in school again, worked harder to stay organized, and began to make new friends. When he makes a poor choice, as he still does, the school’s response is to talk with him, not at him. They recognize his challenges and work to create opportunities for him to incrementally mature and modify his behavior.  

When we shift our focus to explicitly teach the behaviors we value, we provide students with opportunities to stay connected to and learn from their peers.  When we give teachers tools to be better prepared, we empower them to work with challenging behaviors. When we implement alternative, restorative practices in our classrooms, we help reduce the need for suspension and expulsion practices in our schools.  

Marsia Ronyak teaches kindergarten at Independence Elementary in Aurora, Colorado.  She is a Teach Plus Colorado Teaching Policy Fellow and a National Board Certified teacher.

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