Why are We Still Suspending Students?

Despite a lack of evidence that suspension from school has a positive impact on improving behavior, many schools continue to routinely use suspension as an exclusionary punishment. Additionally, current research widely supports the notion that students who are suspended from school are actually impacted negatively. Specifically, suspension often results in students’ continued misbehavior, as well as increasing the likelihood that they will repeat a grade or drop out of school.

And many even become involved in crime. It seems obvious that a call for change is on our doorsteps.

Altering the Pathway that Leads to “Suspension Likely” Behavior

So, when talking about suspension, we can’t just parachute in and land in the middle of a suspension without first examining the pathway that led to that suspension in the first place. Is it possible that by changing our reactions as educators to student behavior that we could actually alter the course of the student’s behavior so that the problem is resolved in a more effective manner, totally bypassing the need for a suspension? The answer is yes. Yes, it is.

It really is crucial for educators to have at least a minimal understanding of the function of behavior. Essentially, all behavior serves a function: to get something or escape something. Very often, students with challenging behavior would like to “escape” being in the classroom, and they have easily learned what they need to do to make that happen. This may not be true in every case, but certainly, it is true in many. Educators should at least consider that some students may purposely be “pushing their buttons” to the degree that a power struggle ensues, and the student is ultimately kicked out of the classroom for insubordination or major disrespect. If that is what they want, and they are getting what they want, then the problem behavior will continue. So, what we perceive as a punishment meant to “teach that student a lesson,” in reality, is reinforcing their misbehavior, ensuring it will continue.

And speaking of power struggles…..you know they never end well. Once you get hooked, it’s hard to bow out gracefully. Learning how to effectively avoid the trap of a power struggle in the first place may alter the pathway to suspension more than anything else. There is an “interactive pathway” that occurs whenever a power struggle is brewing. For every statement a student makes, the adult’s reaction has the power to escalate or de-escalate the student’s behavior. Unfortunately, we often make it worse. We need to learn to know when to speak and when to walk away. Walking away doesn’t mean we are accepting the behavior or allowing it, it means we are choosing to control when and how we address it so that our response doesn’t make things worse. This is such an important concept for educators to understand.

An understanding of effective versus ineffective methods for improving student behavior is also warranted here. There just isn’t a strong evidence base that punishing behavior works to improve it. There is a much more promising base that teaching and reinforcing the positive behaviors we want to see works better. And when it comes to problem behavior, taking an instructional approach in the form of re-teaching still works better than punishing. So, in the end, punishing students by removing them from the classroom is generally an ineffective approach. It really makes you wonder, if teachers and students both knew that suspension was not an option, how that might change their interactions with each other in the first place.

Implementing Alternatives to Suspension

When it comes to exploring alternatives to suspension, there are many options, some easier to implement than others, but it goes without saying that district personnel will need to keep an open mind about the alternatives because they do involve work and thinking outside the box.

One fairly easy and common-sense approach is to institute a practice called Classes Only. Essentially, this practice keeps the students in the classroom for all of their academic needs but removes them from any unstructured or social time in the hallways, during lunch, and after school. Alternate transportation plans could also be included as needed. This would have some of the same impact as a suspension without the interruption in student learning.

Another option is Saturday School. This is really an “anti-suspension” approach, in that instead of removing students from school, it requires them to attend more. It is a form of detention that requires students to give up a portion of their weekend, whether it is a Friday evening or Saturday morning, to spend 3-4 additional hours at school. This is manned by an administrator and it is highly structured. Each school can design its own requirements, but activities can include academic work, behavior problem solving, and community service.

Other alternatives to suspension focus on re-teaching the adverse effects of problem behavior as well as the positive effects of prosocial behavior. Skills Groups, Service Learning Projects, and completing lessons in specific Behavior Modules are three specific ways to do that. While each of these interventions is structured somewhat differently, the objective is the same.

Lastly, holding students accountable for their actions and helping them to create a pathway to restitution is another popular approach. Restitution and Restorative Practices both focus on helping students to accurately see and reflect on the harm that they have done, not just to the victim (or property) but to many others who are part of the ripple effect. Helping students to repair the damage that they have done is time-consuming and requires the human resources to carry it out, but is worthy of consideration.

To read more about these and other alternatives to suspension click here.

Suspending More Effectively

In specific cases where student behavior does result in suspension from school, it is important to think about the most effective way to suspend and consider creating a Suspension Plan. A guiding question might be…..”What disciplinary response would make it less likely that this behavior would occur again in the future?” and move forward from there. While certain aspects are outside of the control of a school district, it might be worth asking:

  • Where will the student be?
  • Who will be supervising the student?
  • What will the student be doing?
  • What will happen when the student returns to school?

In addition, what other interventions could be paired with the suspension to help to resolve the behavior issue? Can re-teaching of appropriate behavior be included? Could the student be taught a more prosocial replacement behavior? Does the student need to make restitution for damage done? And, how can we ensure that the student will have a “fresh start” upon returning to school?

Forging a New Pathway

While it may not be realistic to believe that schools would ever reach a zero suspension rate, it is very conceivable that schools could greatly reduce the number of suspensions. With strategic professional development and planning, schools could most definitely begin to forge a new pathway to more effective and pro-social responses to student behavior.

Behavior Specialists at the Mid-State RSE-TASC will be offering one-day trainings on Alternatives to Suspension in the Central New York area.
Click on the links below to register:


James_Tracy_300pxTracy James
RSE-TASC Behavior Specialist


One thought on “Why are We Still Suspending Students?

  1. Were the “alternatives to suspensions “classes both canceled in march? And if so…why? Was it lack of interest? Will they be offered again? This very thing , “Suspensions”, needs attention in all school districts. Very important, very…very…important. Suspensions do not help students…but does just the opposite. Only under very, and I mean very serious circumstance should they be used. Children in kindergarten thru elementary grades….I find it very hard to justify suspensions for any reasons. Especially when it comes to special needs students!! They are seperated enough on many levels already and it has a great impact upon them. We’re not helping the children at these levels. In the 80’s there was such a thing as in school suspension….it worked very well. Unfortunately it takes time, money, and appropriate character and strategies. These things school districts are unwilling or unable to afford/provide. There are politicians and others very concerned with this issue in various states, as I understand it. New York state must do better. I hope it is one that will be pushed to the forefront in our education systems for serious attention. We need a “Time in attitude”….not a “Time out attitude” to help our children. What will we teach our students/children. Our students/children lives matter!!

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