To suspend or not to suspend…

Recently a colleague of mine asked for my thoughts on a hypothetical situation: Would I, as a VP, send a kindergarten child home for hitting?   This child has a noted history of poor communication and social skills for his age, as well as a low threshold for frustration. Furthermore, how and to what extent do special needs play a role in the decision of an administrator?  What’s the role of progressive discipline when it comes to students so young? What are the ramifications with regard to how it “looks” to the staff and parents? No quick answer to these, and it’s taken me about three or four days to even begin to put my thoughts down on this.

First of all, the term progressive discipline to me is inaccurate, and perhaps my preferred term speaks to my approach to an issue like this.  Because the word ‘discipline’ has such a negative connotation, and still tends to encompass the idea of punishment, I use progressive intervention, or a continuum of supports instead of progressive discipline.  Certainly more corrective actions, like suspensions, are within the realm of the various interventions that administrators use when responding to a child’s behaviour, but it is not where we go first. 

With a child as described above, and indeed with any child, I look to the circumstances under which the behaviour happened.  A child’s young age is a huge mitigating factor, especially when compounded with an array of issues; issues, according to Ross Greene, that present themselves as a learning disability, or in his terms, as lagging cognitive skills.  These lagging cognitive skills could be in various areas, such as frustration tolerance, flexibility or adaptability, or in problem-solving.  When students with lagging skills are faced with problems they can’t solve because of their lagging of skills, you can imagine what results.  Behind every inappropriate behaviour is a child who wants to do well and do what’s right, but can’t in certain situations,  and for the most part, they know it.  So what can we do?  We (meaning the child, and adult or adults) work through the problem that the child has been having, not by going through each individual infraction, but by looking at the overall pattern of challenges the child has been experiencing. By giving the child a voice, and by giving them the language they need to express what their thinking, we take steps in a collaborative effort to help the child build in the skill areas in which they are lagging, and equip them with tools to face and navigate the situations that have previously led to negative behaviours.

Now, let’s bring in provincial legislation and school board policies and procedures.  Ontario PPM (Policy/Procedure Memorandum) 145 outlines how school boards in Ontario are to have and implement progressive (ugh) discipline  policies that combine the disciplinary actions with ones that promote student safety and positive behaviour.  We have the Safe Schools legislation to consider that requires anyone on school grounds (from visitors, to support personnel, parents and co-op students, to teachers and administrators) to report behaviours to the principal of the school that could potentially be suspendable or result in an expulsion.  The principal has a legal obligation to report back to the complainant within 24 hours noting whether action was or wasn’t taken (no details on what the actions were).  This reporting to the principal does not take into account any mitigating factors.  However, the Safe School legislation does not necessarily require, as a zero tolerance policy from before, to suspend a child for hitting.  This is again where principal discretion within reason comes into play.

The optics of it can get fuzzy to people on the outside.  As an administrator in a school with its share of students who are very much “lost at school”, I make it a point to be very transparent in my beliefs about student behaviour and my approach to intervening.  But because they’re transparent, don’t be fooled into thinking they’re fluid.  They have to be the stuff of science-fiction in their strength, as inevitably you will be challenged – by staff, by parents, or even by other administrators.  If you act with integrity, and for what’s best for the student, you can be confident you’re doing what’s right.

So when do you suspend, or send a child home?  We must be careful here.  I made a faux-pas on the phone with a parent recently.  The child was having an extreme level of difficulty managing the day, so I contacted Mom to let her know.  My words to her were, “He’s finding the day to be really challenging.  He’s not doing anything that’s getting him into any trouble so far, but if you’re in a position to have him go home, I think that would be best for him.”  Students often go home when they’re having a tough time at school, even though they’ve not done anything suspendable.  Young kids having a tantrum would be a good example.  However, outside of a suspension, we don’t want to give the impression that we’re punishing a child by sending him or her home.  After reflecting on my conversation with the boy’s mother, that part about my thinking it would be best for him to go home could easily be interpreted as “the school wants or expects him to go home”, rather than it being a parent’s choice – because that mother had every right to say no, but perhaps she didn’t feel she could. 

Suspensions come after an increasingly intensive level of supports have been used with little or no change in a student’s behaviour, barring extremely serious cases where an immediate suspension would be warranted. For our young kindie friend as described above, I wouldn’t be quick to suspend right away.  There’s learning to be done, and that’s why we’re here.  If you start bringing out the big guns early on, where have you got to go if nothing improves?  Not everyone will understand or support it, and school discipline has always been a hotbed of debate, so you have to be prepared to be okay with that.  When you mix in the issue of kids with documented and/or diagnosed special needs, it gets very grey very quickly.  You have to go with your gut.  And there’s always a community of administrators around to bounce ideas off of.

It’s a loooooooooooong answer to a complex issue.  I’ve expressed what I know to the extent that I know it :).  I am open to others adding, commenting, suggesting, and correcting if need be.

And to just end off, reading “Lost at School” was one of the most transformative books I have ever read.  You know how people say, “It just clicked?”.  Well, that one simple statement, children do well if they can, clicked for me with a hearty clap of thunder.  (Only other time that happened was the day I met my husband 🙂 ). This book is one of my most highly recommended.

4 thoughts on “To suspend or not to suspend…

  1. Funny that you mention Ross Greene as I had the pleasure of hearing him speak last spring. It was incredibly engaging and his catch-phrase of ‘When are challenging kids challenging? When they don’t have the skills not to be!’ was a game-changer for me and it has become my crusade.

    Part of my position (actually, not my position, but overarching role of responsibility) within my school is to develop, implement, and support interventions for our ‘lost’ kids. It’s been an incredible learning experience and one that I value immensely. It’s been phenomenal to be witness to the progress and positive change in our kids as our understanding grows about what skills they are lacking and how to go about helping them to develop those skills, along with the daily reminders that ‘the path to our destination is not always a straight one’.

    Now that I’ve been reminded of his name (it had slipped my mind, but I knew I had it in my presentation notes), Ross Greene’s book has moved to the top of my ‘to read’ list. Thanks for the recommendation (and the reminder) 🙂

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  3. Erin,

    Thank you for this post. These are exactly the kinds of questions my AP and I face everyday. Another element to add to the mix is the fact that there is pressure to keep the number of suspensions down (it is one measurement for AYP) which can conflict with staff and parent preferences for consequences. We instituted an advisory program this year to help mitigate the need to suspend. At the moment, the jury is still out as to its effectiveness but we have seen students coming to us during times of conflict asking for help, instead of resorting to fighting, more now than before. It is about building a positive culture that people buy into which we are still working on.

    Thanks for the book recommendation!

    Jill Geiser

  4. Hi Jill,

    I really appreciate your post. We have a kindergarten student who was having a hard time adjusting and was being very agressive toward other students. There was other mitigating factors, such as new baby at home, but we were at a loss as to what to do. Ultimately, we enlisted the support of the parent and our school team and problem solved the best we could. The student is making progress, but still has a way to go. I just don’t see how sending him home or using punitive measures would have benefited him.

    I love the line “Behind every inappropriate behaviour is a child who wants to do well and do what’s right, but can’t in certain situations, and for the most part, they know it. ” It is so true. It is our job in schools to support kids and help them learn how to manage those situations they find difficult…as hard as that it sometimes.

    Thanks for the great post!

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