Sunday, September 21, 2014

Minneapolis Superintendent Bans Most Suspensions for their Youngest Students

What Districts Need to do Instead of Suspending (Young) Students:  Effective Student, Staff, and Student Approaches 

Today, I am writing this E-Blast at 30,000 feet as I return from presenting a workshop on "How Teaching Social Skills in the Classroom Increases Academic Engagement and Reduces Discipline and Mental Health Problems" at the annual School-based Mental Health Conference that was held this week in Pittsburgh.

   While I will share some reflections on the conference in two weeks, today I want to focus on a recent Education Week article. Titled "Minneapolis Superintendent Bans Most Suspensions for Youngest Students," the article describes how School Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson has placed an immediate moratorium in her district on suspending students in prekindergarten through Grade 1 for non-violent behaviors.


   Clearly, for the Minneapolis schools, this decision is related to the fact that the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights is investigating the district due to its "inconsistent (read disproportionate) suspension practices." But this issue is not new-especially over the past year or so-as a number of scholarly or investigative reports have (again) noted that nationally:

     * Zero tolerance school discipline policies do not work;  

     * Minority students and students with disabilities are disproportionately sent to the principal's office for "low level" issues like disrespect to teachers-situations that should be resolved in the classroom by the students, their teachers, and as appropriate, the students' parents, guardians, or caretakers;

     * Minority students and students with disabilities are disproportionately suspended from schools-again, often for "offenses" that often do not rise to the level of needing a suspension;

     * Preschool students are kicked out of school (typically due to behavior) more often than any other age group attending our nation's schools; and

     * Educative, restorative, culturally- and trauma-sensitive, and other school, staff, and student interventions have demonstrated their consistent ability to decrease student misbehavior, while increasing positive school and classroom climates, prosocial and effective interpersonal interactions, and students' academic engagement.

   While Superintendent Johnson's decision is a good start, I hope that some additional things have occurred at the same time in the areas of:

     * Professional development,
     * Staff supervision and support,
     * Data-based problem solving, and
     * The availability of district-employed consultants (or coaches) who have the expertise to work with classroom teachers-helping them implement needed social, emotional, and behavioral interventions.

   The point is:  

If students are not demonstrating consistently positive and prosocial behavior in the classroom, the teachers--supported, as needed, by other support professionals--need to determine why this is happening so that classroom-based instructional or intervention approaches can be implemented to change the behavior and solve the problem.

   If all we do is to make policy decision to not suspend students without the problem solving approaches focused on identifying and addressing existing problems, we are not appropriately serving students, staff, schools, or systems.
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Why Do Students Demonstrate Social, Emotional, or Behavioral Challenges?

   When students demonstrate social, emotional, or behavioral challenges, we need to work together to figure out why. Sometimes this can be done by an individual teacher. . . sometimes this is accomplished by a grade-level (or instructional) team working together. . . and sometimes this requires a school-level multidisciplinary early intervention team (like a Student Assistance Team, RtI Team, Student Services Team, or the equivalent).

Critically, though, everyone in the school needs to be trained in the same effective data-based problem-solving process (that addresses both academic and behavioral situations), and this process needs to be integrated into the school's RtI or Multi-Tiered Services approach. Beyond this, schools need to have professionals with extensive knowledge in classroom interventions so that problem analysis results can turn into the right effectively-implemented interventions.
   (Look at First Entry on this Page)

   Once again, we first need to understand the underlying reasons for a student's problem BEFORE we begin implementing instructional or intervention approaches.  

Clearly, your doctor always does a medical analyses of your problem before beginning treatment. Doctors do not implement the same (Tier 2) interventions for every patient that walks into their office. If they did that, many patients would still be sick (or worse), and doctors would either lose patients (figuratively or literally!), and in the latter situation, they would probably lose their licenses to practice (due to successful litigation against them).

     Some of the primary reasons why students demonstrate social, emotional, or behavioral problems in the classroom include:

    * They do not have positive relationships with teachers and/or peers in the school, and/or the school or classroom climate is negative. . .or negative for them.

     * They are academically frustrated (and often, unsuccessful), and this frustration and failure is exhibited emotionally, socially, or behaviorally.

     * Their teachers do not have effective classroom management skills, and/or the teachers at their grade or instructional levels do not have consistent classroom management approaches.

     * They have not learned how to apply and demonstrate effective interpersonal, social problem-solving, conflict prevention and resolution, and/or emotional coping skills to certain (school-based) situations in their lives.

   * Meaningful incentives (to motivate appropriate behavior) or consequences (to respond to inappropriate behavior, while simultaneously motivating appropriate behavior the next time) are not consistently present.

     * They are not held accountable for appropriate behavior by, for example, requiring them (a) to apologize for and correct the results of their inappropriate behavior; and (b) role play, practice, or demonstrate the appropriate behavior-after the fact-that they should have done originally.

     * Their behavior is a function of inconsistency-- across people, settings, situations, or other circumstances. For example, in the face of inconsistency across different teachers, some students will manipulate the situation or see how much they can "get away with." When peers or parents reinforce inappropriate student behavior, students sometimes use this as an excuse, or they behave inappropriately because they value their peers more than the adults in the school.

     * They are experiencing extenuating, traumatic, or crisis-related circumstances outside of school, and they need support (sometimes including mental health) to stabilize and address these situations so that they can be more successful at school.

[NOTE that many classroom teachers have received inadequate training in classroom management during their university-training, and many schools/districts do not provide systematic and ongoing in-service training and supervision in this area. This is also true of administrators. Thus, many educators are not trying to be ineffective in this area-they can only do what they know to do.]

[NOTE that there are a wide range of social, emotional, and behavioral interventions-- many that can be implemented by classroom teachers with the support of special education, related services, or mental health professionals. However, many of these professionals have not been trained in these interventions, or their roles do not include the consultation time needed to work with classroom teachers to facilitate their implementation.]


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Why Do Some School-wide Approaches to Discipline and Behavior Management Not Work?

   There are two reasons why many school-wide approaches to school discipline and classroom management have not worked across the country.

   The first reason is that the goal for many schools is to decrease or eliminate office discipline referrals and/or school suspensions, rather than teaching and reinforcing students' social, emotional, and behavioral self-management and self-control skills.

   The second reason is that effective, multi-tiered school discipline, classroom management, and student self-management processes have not been integrated into most district or schools':

* Annual school planning and improvement process
* Staffing and resource management process
* Professional development and school/staff evaluation process
* School-level Committee and shared leadership process
* Curriculum and instruction process

   For us, effective schools have the following primary goals:

1. High levels of academic engagement and academic achievement for all students.

2. High levels of effective interpersonal, social problem-solving, conflict resolution, and coping skills/behaviors by all students (and staff).

3. High levels of critical thinking, reasoning, and problem-solving skills by all students (and staff).  

4. High levels of teacher confidence- relative to instruction, classroom management, and in helping students with academic or behavior problems.

5. Consistently effective instruction and classroom management across all teachers/instructional support staff.

6. Low levels of classroom discipline problems, discipline problems that need to involve the Principal, or discipline problems that require student suspensions or expulsions.

7. High levels of parent support and involvement in student self-management.
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   Clearly, it is great that districts and schools nationwide are examining and evaluating their outcomes relative to their academic and social, emotional, and behavioral services, supports, strategies, and programs for all students. And, I applaud the Minneapolis School District for recognizing that suspensions are not going to change the (mis)behavior of their youngest students, and that different approaches are needed. 

   As a school psychologist and a national consultant who has worked with thousands of schools and districts over the last 30 years, I know first-hand that many of the things described above DO work and DO NOT cost excessive amounts of money. As is often said, "We can't work any harder than we are, but we CAN work smarter."

   I hope that some of the ideas above resonate with you.  Meanwhile, please accept my best wishes as you continue to provide the services and supports that all of your students need. Have a GREAT week !!!



Saturday, September 6, 2014

New Superintendents’ Survey: Suspensions Do NOT Change Behavior—What does?

School Discipline Policies and Practices, the Impact of Out-of-School Suspensions, and How to Rethink our Approaches for Greater Student Success

The Dilemma

   While the school year typically begins in many positive ways— relative to student behavior, schools without effective school-wide discipline approaches and multi-tiered services and supports begin to see “old patterns” emerge around the middle of September.  When students exhibit “Code of Conduct” offenses, it is often is necessary to suspend those students for a period of time.

   Numerous national studies over the past year have reported that many of these students— disproportionately— are students from minority backgrounds and students with disabilities.  With our nation’s schools now majority minority, this is concerning in and of itself.  But, we will leave that discussion for another day.

   For today, we want to pose a critical question when students need to be suspended (according to the Code of Conduct):

   Will the suspension— while administratively appropriate— result in the ultimate, desired goal:  to decrease and eliminate future inappropriate student behavior, resulting in an increase of appropriate behavior?

   If the above goal is not met, then the suspension (while temporarily improving a school’s climate and other students’ academic engagement due to the absence of the student) has minimal long-term impact. 

What do Superintendents’ Think?

   In April 2014, the American Association of School Administrators (our country’s primary professional association of school superintendents) and the Children’s Defense Fund conducted a national survey of 500 demographically-representative school superintendents to determine their district-wide school discipline policies and practices, and the impact and why their used out-of-school suspensions (OSS).


   Below are the highlights (with our comments) of what they found:

Survey Result.  Maintaining safety and order in the school building was considered the primary purpose of an OSS; followed by communicating to students, parents, and teachers that the school is taking disciplinary issues seriously; and removing disruptions so that other students could learn.

  Only 12% of superintendents identified the primary purpose of the OSS was to discourage future misconduct and to change future student behavior.

Response.  While the primary purposes above are important, if student disruptions do not change, student learning continues to be impacted; and students, parents, and teachers end up feeling that administrators do not have solutions—even though they are taking discipline problems seriously.

  If administrators know that a suspension, while appropriate, will not change a student’s behavior, they need to call on their Student Assistance Team (or the equivalent) which should be staffed with the best academic and behavioral assessment and intervention professionals in their school or district.  This Team needs to functionally assess why a student is demonstrating social, emotional, or behavioral problems, and design and implement effective services, supports, interventions, or programs.
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Survey Result.  40% of the superintendents said that insubordination, defiance, and failure to obey and disrespect of teachers and staff were the most common OSS infractions.  30% said that fighting was the most common infraction.

Response.  While insubordination, defiance, and disrespect are problematic, they rarely rise to a level requiring an OSS.  Many school districts do not have a school-wide accountability system that identifies how staff will address annoying (Intensity I) versus classroom disruption (Intensity II) versus antisocial (Intensity III) versus Code of Conduct (Intensity IV) behaviors.  By connecting research-based responses focused on changing student behavior with these Intensities of inappropriate behavior, we have successfully addressed (or prevented) many of the problems above.

   When fighting occurs, administrators could require the students involved (and, perhaps, their parents) to come to, for example, the district office on the first day of the suspension so that (a) the fight can be debriefed and analyzed; (b) preventative strategies can be identified, taught, and practiced in roleplay scenarios; and (c) other restorative or “action plan” interventions are organized.  Once again, members of the Student Assistance Team are probably the professionals involved in this debriefing and intervention process.  And again, the ultimate goal is to eliminate the potential of future fights, and to increase the students’ ability to get along with each other (or, at least, co-exist).
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Survey Result.  92% of the superintendents believed that OSSs had negative consequences in their districts.  67% indicated that lost class time was the most significant consequence.  As a result, 82% of the superintendents noted that suspended students were allowed to make up missed work and receive full credit for that work; 50% provided suspended students with access to tutoring or other academic assistance; and 19% reported that suspended students received one-on-one or small group instruction with a certified teacher during the suspension.

Response.  A critical question here is:  “How many students are behaviorally acting out because of academic frustration?”  When students act out due to academic frustration, they are exhibiting behavioral problems NOT disciplinary problems.  This distinction is important because an academic intervention has a higher probability changing these students’ behavior, as opposed to a disciplinary response.
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Survey Response.  43% of urban and 38% of high poverty district superintendents believed that OSSs encouraged later student disengagement, absenteeism, truancy, and/or dropout rates.

Response.  Research and practice support these beliefs.  Many school districts have decreased their need for OSS, and implemented proactive and successful alternatives to OSS over the past number of years— through multi-tiered positive behavioral support systems with embedded school discipline, classroom management, and student self-management approaches.
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Survey.  40% of the superintendents believed that social skills instruction— focusing on prosocial interpersonal skills, conflict prevention and resolution skills, social problem-solving skills, and emotional coping skills would have the greatest impact on reducing OSSs and improving school climate and school relationships.  38% cited the need for more mental health supports, counselors, or social workers; and 38% believed that additional training for teachers and staff was needed.

Response.  A 2011 meta-analysis of over 200 studies investigating the impact of social skills training for all students as part of a kindergarten through high school “Health, Mental Health, and Wellness” program increased (a) positive school climates and safety; (b) positive student and staff relationships and interactions; (c) students’ social, emotional, and behavioral self-management and adjustment; and (d) students’ academic engagement and achievement.  These approaches also decrease classroom discipline problems, and the need for office discipline referrals, and OSSs.
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Summary and Update.  There are approaches to address the concerns of school superintendents across the country relative to student discipline, disproportionality, and school suspensions.  Over the past month, we have heard from schools across the country that we have worked with— some for over 10 years— that their test scores are up, their office discipline referrals are down, their schools are safer and more positive, and that they have sustained these successes over a number of years because we have helped them build the school-wide skills and capacity to do this on their own.

   As many of you know, I spent much of last month in Montana working with an elementary through high school day and residential treatment facility for emotionally and behaviorally disabled students.  Significantly, I spent the first two days of their school year on-site to help implement the strategies and supports that we developed during our before-school professional development days. 

   Based on data and debriefing discussions and surveys, the school year began with more student engagement, more positive interactions in the classrooms and common school areas (especially the hallways, cafeteria, and playground), there were virtually no incidents requiring the Time-out rooms, and no physical restraints reported.  Overall, the staff felt more empowered and confident of their ability to succeed with these challenging students, and they demonstrated an exceptional level of dedication and independence in implementing the approaches that were planned and taught.
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  I hope that your new school year has had a very successful start.  If there is anything I can do to help you move "to the next level of excellence," please do not hesitate to contact me.