5 Practical Alternatives to Suspension that REALLY WORK

Wednesday, March 13, 2019
Suspensions often feel like the only answer to certain behaviors. When schools do not have an overall climate of positive behavior supports, trauma informed practices, and ethical behavior practices - as a literal framework of the school - suspension absolutely can feel like one of the only solutions. While it can be hard for a single educator to overhaul an entire school climate in order to reduce suspensions, it's not impossible. The prerequisite to suspension alternatives must be a school climate that supports them. Without all the gears turning, it can be a consistent uphill battle to put these alternatives into practice. Before we get started on the alternatives, here are some frameworks to consider as a school to help build a culture of positive behavior and ethical practices for student growth.

I also love this TED talk from the amazing Monique Morris who discusses the plight of Black girls being pushed out of schools, and effective alternatives to punitive punishment.

This is a great book that is an easy, quick read, while still full if incredibly applicable and valuable information about restorative practices. 

What's the harm with suspension?

Plain and simple: suspensions don't work. We want suspensions to cause a change in students so that they decide to never exhibit that same behavior again. The fact is, suspension only removes a child completely from their learning environment without any teaching occurring. Also, according to the Duke University Center for Child and Family Policy, 30% to 50% of suspended students are repeat offenders, indicating that suspension does little to discourage misbehavior and may in fact encourage it.

Suspensions are also completely inconsistent, biased, and straight up racist. And - we really can say that as a factual statement. According to the United States Department of Education Office of Civil Rights, Black students are more than three times as likely as their white peers to be expelled or suspended. 

Speaking of inconsistent, we tend to suspend students for both enormous problems, and really trivial ones. It's not surprising that behavioral disturbances and small offenses happen way more often than enormous problems like drug usage, students bringing weapons, and hate crimes - but suspension data does not really mirror this. Only 5% of all out-of-school suspensions result from offenses typically considered serious or dangerous, such as possession of weapons or drugs. The remaining 95% of suspensions stem from disruptive behavior and other rule violations. (Skiba & Rausch, Handbook of Classroom Management, 1068.) 

So really, we need to change things. Our students deserve the very best we have to offer, and it's blatantly clear that this is not the best we have to offer. 


As I delve into 5 highly effective alternatives to suspension, I want to address the highly probable flood of emails and comments that will come after posting this blog: you need prerequisites in your school in order for any of these alternatives to be successful. Your school MUST have an overall culture that will support this. It's not easy to change the culture of a school but it's possible. I have seen it, many times. Teachers CAN be highly trained in de-escalation techniques, restorative conversations, and social emotional learning. Administrators & related stakeholders can hold effective in-school suspension sessions that both teach and are restorative, ethical, and include restitution. 

Above I listed 3 wonderful websites from highly respected organizations that support schools in building safe and supportive school communities for all students, staff, and families. Please review these and consider if your school falls into these frameworks and participates in any of the practices they list before determining if these alternatives are valid or would work with your student population. 

On to the alternatives to suspension!

1.) Problem Solving 
If you've been around my blog or social media accounts for awhile, you already know how much I love the philosophies and frameworks of Dr. Ross Greene. When a student begins exhibiting challenging behavior that persists, starting the process of Collaborative and Proactive Solutions (or Collaborative Problem Solving) through the use of the "Plan B" method, often you can gain more insight on the "why" of the behavior, and together with the student determine ways that the need can be met outside of the behavior. 

2.) Contracting 
After you have worked through the problem solving step, the next step is where together you develop a contract that reminds and encourages the student to engage in a problem-solving process, and which also can include reinforcers for success and agreed upon and already presented consequences for if the challenging behavior persists. 

Contracting does not always have to pair with problem solving, but I have found this to be a good and sound pairing with interventions for challenging behavior!

3.) Restitution & Reflection
Some behaviors lend themselves to needing to restore, or fix, something. This can be a physical item: they broke something, tore apart a classroom, vandalized a wall. The child would then be responsible for fixing the broken or messy item/area by giving them all the tools they need and directions (and often help) they need to return the problem to as close to the original state as possible. The student would then reflect on why it's necessary to fix something you break, and ask them how it felt to have to go through the entire process of restoring something because of their own actions. 

Some behaviors don't break or harm something physical, but a person. During these types of restitution conversations, it's beneficial to have the child who engaged in the behavior, the person/people affected, and a mediator. The mediator can facilitate a restitution conversation where the child learns in an ethical yet honest way how their behavior affected others. Then, there can be some type of recommendation for how the relationship will work to be repaired. 

4.) Learning Modules 
Creating lessons surrounding the behavior the child engaged (or regularly engages in) for the child to complete to gain more information on alternatives, how their behavior affects others, the possible long term consequences, etc. can be a very important part of breaking the "suspension cycle". If we hold the belief that kids do well if they can, then we do understand that one of the missing pieces is a skill that the child needs some developing around. Students can watch videos, complete worksheets, create art, read passages, write a culminating paper or speech (etc) to learn and exhibit their understanding surrounding a skill deficit area.

5.) Ethical & Appropriate In School Suspension
Some behaviors happen more spontaneously and don't fit into a predictable cycle of behaviors that we are able to catch early on and intervene on before they snowball. For these behaviors (ex: a significant fight, bringing a weapon to school), sometimes an in-school suspension (ISS) is a reasonable solution. Unfortunately our typical ISS routines are a student sitting in a small room, only moderately supervised, with a giant packet of work from their teacher that they need to complete in silence. While it's ideal that the child is in school, this really is not doing much to teach, restore, and build positive behaviors to decrease the likelihood of this happening again. 

An ethical, effective, and appropriate ISS could include many of the elements of #1-4. Some of the paperwork linked in #1's suggestion of problem solving could be useful if the behaviors apply. Creating a contract together during an ISS would be a very useful document to rely on after the conclusion of the ISS. Restitution is an excellent way to spend an ISS. If the behavior the student engaged in affected the hall monitors, the administrators, students, and the SRO, the student could clean up trash or paint a wall that has chipped paint in that hallway, as that solution would positively benefit all of the individuals they negatively affected during the challenging behavior. The reasons for the restitution should be as clearly laid out as when a teacher explains why their students need to learn fractions - we all participate more fully when we understand the reason for learning something. Learning modules would be another excellent addition to a meaningful ISS. Students could engage in learning about how to maintain healthy boundaries, the reasons why drugs are harmful, the negative consequences of gang activity, or determining which healthy coping skills work for them. 

Out of school suspension doesn't work. Students are disproportionately punished, it's punitive, it does not teach students anything in their deficit areas, students miss important academic instruction,  suspensions actually create more suspensions, and the list goes on.

How are you going to help your school move towards implementing alternatives to suspension?


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