Systemic, preventive alternatives to suspension, expulsion, seclusion and restraint

August 17, 2013

Guest blog post by Kevin Dwyer, MA, NCSP ~ 

Schools are responsible for maintaining safe and orderly environments for learning. To enable order, schools set up codes-of-conduct that present do’s and don’ts, where negative behaviors are subject to graduated levels of punishment. When students are “insubordinate” or “disruptive” (the most common behavioral referrals from teachers) they are frequently removed from their classroom and disciplined using some form of punishment that involves withdrawing both instruction and peer interaction. For students with disabilities seclusion and restraint are also approved interventions available for trained staff to implement when disruptive behavior escalates. Seclusion and suspension are known to be ineffective in improving the student’s behavior, yet they remain common practices institutionalized in school discipline policy (See: “The dark side of zero tolerance: Can punishment lead to safe schools?” (1999) Skiba, R.J., Peterson,R.L. & Williams, T.  Phi Delta Kappan, 80, pp372-381). Punishment, or what adults perceive as punishment, does not teach students the skills needed for addressing the feeling or drives behind negative behaviors such as frustration, impulsivity, anxiety, needed social recognition, and other challenges including social skill deficits. Suspension and expulsion also do not improve school safety. Surveys have shown that students feel less safe in schools with high suspension rates when compared with schools that have served similar student populations but have low suspension rates. According to Robert Balfanz from the Johns Hopkins Center for Social Organization of Schools students who have been suspended one or more times are less likely to graduate than their non-suspended peers. Many proponents of suspension believe that there are no alternatives to these punishing discipline interventions and some believe that the punishing interventions actually work and cite anecdotal examples of student’s behavior being turned around by suspension, expulsion or restraint. However anecdotes do not trump science. Teaching the skills to increase positive behaviors and reduce negative unsafe and disruptive behaviors is not an easy process since it frequently requires replacing the disruptive behavior with a newly learned positive one. Starting as early as possible, even in pre-school, is one way of improving success.

If you want students to learn to read you must provide effective reading instruction and, for some, timely individualize that instruction to ensure grade-level progress for all. For reading and other academics, teachers are taught instructional best practices and how to motivate learners to ensure periodic measured academic achievement. If you want students to be socially skilled and behave adaptively within a structured instructional environment you need to ensure that those social skills are taught to mastery and reinforced. Equally, some students will require individualized instruction to demonstrate and master those critical social skills.

For decades educators and school and mental health advocates have known that all children, including those with emotional disabilities, respond effectively to learning social and coping skill instruction. It has been shown that, like academics, the use of social skills can be reinforced be teachers, school staff, peers and families so that mastery becomes common throughout the school. What happens in classrooms and schools that regularly teach and reinforce social skills is that teachers report improved student attention, more instructional time and fewer behavioral problems. According to the Collaborative for Academic and Social Emotional Learning (See reading and other academic achievement also improve when social skills are effectively taught. Schools in Cleveland, Ohio, for example, have found that when these social skills are taught with fidelity by well-trained primary grade teachers, over several years, these schools have reduced suspensions and also increased attendance. So one effective alternative to suspension and expulsion is teaching students, from pre-school on, the positive social skills they can use for better coping with frustration and for gaining rewarding, respectful social interactions. Most well researched social skill programs enable students to get in touch with their feelings and stop before they react using that awareness to think of a viable action that will likely result in a positive outcome. The skills help build students’ self awareness, awareness of others, empathy and problem solving. These positive effects are strongest when social skills are incorporated into the classroom curricula and taught to all students by their teachers rather than targeted to selected pull-out groups or taught by some other itinerant staff. In some school systems universal social skills instruction is evaluated just like any other instruction and principals are held accountable for ensuring the instruction takes place using best practice standards. The greatest effects of universally teaching social skills, in, for example, all pre-kindergarten through fifth grade classrooms is that the skills can be reinforced by all staff and become part of the school’s climate.  

Other school and classroom universal prevention techniques that can be combined with social skill instruction are class meetings and positive behavioral supports. Class meetings use the problem solving and other learned social skills for discussing class, school or other issues important to staff and students. Students learn cooperation and compromise. Class meetings have been shown to be effective in improving caring and connection to school. The synergy with social skills has been demonstrated in teachers reporting improved classroom behavior. In one urban school district class meetings are held for 20 minutes twice a week using a structured agenda that teachers are trained to maintain. Students rotate in leading the scripted discussion coached by the teacher. Why scripted? Structure promotes general information sharing and problem solving and also avoids distracting tangents. Class meetings are not meant to be gripe sessions or personal counseling sessions. Private or serious personal information is not a topic for these meetings and teachers are encouraged to seek appropriate help for such disclosures by students.

Positive behavioral supports is a proven method for reinforcing do’s instead of don’ts. Helping students see the behaviors that will facilitate their functioning together in a caring and respectful way reduces conflict. When students are reinforced for doing what is right they are more likely to repeat that behavior. Positive behavioral training is also necessary for developing social skills. So discipline focuses on positives such as listening, respecting each others property. The rules are displayed in classrooms, cafeterias and throughout the building as reminders and students are “caught” engaging in such positive behaviors. As with social skills, families are informed and reminded of the desired positive behaviors that also apply at home and the community. Listing positive behaviors and making sure that all staff maintain the same set of standards enables the consistency needed for students.

Another preventive alternative to common classroom behavior problems that may result in a “referral to the office” and eventual suspension is the training of staff in de-escalation techniques that enable teachers and staff to assist students in demonstrating positive behavioral responses to stressful feelings or possible conflict situations. Too frequently a student begins to respond inappropriately to a stressor and that inappropriate behavior becomes the focus of a reprimand. The reprimand escalates the inappropriate behavior until the disruption results in removal. De-escalation training focuses on avoiding that escalating cycle. Here the trained teacher or staff person defuses the problem behaviors by observing emerging problems, listening, determining and addressing the underlying “why” behind the emerging behavior or by diverting rather than possibly reactively escalating the behavior. When effective staff training is supported and its use encouraged removal, suspension, restraint and seclusion become rarely used responses to emerging disruptive behavior. Knowing the student’s effective coping skills and the “triggers” that might reduce their use can be valuable in preventing that disruptive or insubordinate suspend-able behavior. Problem solving, predicting and preventing disruptions, understanding the “why” behind behavior are successful. Teachers have found that the time taken to de-escalate a problem is far less than the instructional time lost to a more serious class disruption. In many school systems students have also been trained in “conflict resolution” to help their peers positively resolve a problem before it results in a suspend-able offense. Peer mediation and conflict resolution, like any intervention skill requires training, monitoring and supervision so that severe problems are not addressed by peers.

To reduce out-of-school suspensions many school systems have established “in-school suspension” facilities that use paraprofessional monitors to house students who are disruptive or insubordinate. Most such facilities are non-instructional and modeled around punishment. Their merit is that they keep students in a safe and supervised place. However, in many if not most cases they are not known to positively change behavior. An effective alternative to traditional in-school suspension is an in-school planning center, a room where a specially trained teacher or paraprofessional can combine a variety of techniques to both de-escalate the problem behavior, help the student problem solve to develop plans for a positive re-entry of the student into the classroom. The planning center can also help identify social-emotional issues that may require additional supports and referral to the school’s student support team. Teachers and staff that send students to the planning center do so through the principal’s office and must also provide the planning center staff with appropriate academic materials to work on, thus reducing the impact of missing important classroom instruction. When students are sent for a designated period of time this academic component becomes even more vital. Effective planning centers are equipped with all textbooks and instructional materials across grades and related computer materials. In one school district where paraprofessionals are used they are given 60 hours of training and have weekly coaching support from the school’s counselor or psychologist.  Data are kept on the center’s use and effectiveness.

Universal prevention, early and intensive intervention in combination is effective policy and practice replacement for suspension, expulsion, seclusion and restraint.  Using failed practices to make schools safe and orderly is too costly to all.


Kevin P. Dwyer, M.A., a Nationally Certified School Psychologist, is an education and child mental health consultant.  He recently served as a principal research associate for the American Institutes for Research. For over 30 years he practiced school psychology in public schools and held several local, state and national leadership positions in the fields of mental health and education, being responsible for the design, development, implementation and evaluation of programs and practices, for improving school climate, safety, and wellbeing for the education, and mental health of children.  He has helped school staff in many districts use data to inform decisions on improving caring and connectedness with students and professional peers.  His work, publications, presentations, and practices have influenced public policy and the development of efficient, family focused collaborative child service systems.  During his 30 years as a public school psychologist he worked directly with over 10,000 children and their families as well as trained over 6000 educators. He provided psychological services to children, including those with disabilities and those whose anxiety and mental health problems blocked learning and adjustment.  He assisted teachers and staff in supporting a caring, inclusive school climate for all children.  In 2007 the Maryland Coalition of Families awarded Mr. Dwyer and his wife for their work in making schools more family friendly.  He served as president of the National Association of School Psychologist and was given its highest honor, the Life-time Achievement Award.  In 2000 he received the Tipper Gore “Advocacy award for improving the lives and mental health of America’s children” from the National Mental Health Association.

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