Friday, January 10, 2014

Our Multi-Leveled School Discipline System

Now in my fourteenth year as a public school administrator, I am more convinced than ever that a multi-leveled school-wide discipline system provides the bedrock for a positive and productive school environment. My staff and I apply a considerable amount of diligent attention to evaluating and improving our system each year.

Losing children to suspension or expulsion has always vexed my soul. I stay fired up to keep even chronic behavior problems in school, inventing and implementing programs that enable us to hold onto ugly-acting kids without derailing the educational program for the majority of the student body.

All personnel in our building play clearly defined roles in our school-wide system. Administrators, secretaries, para-educators and aides, custodians, and classroom teachers all address inappropriate behavior in hallways, on the grounds, at assemblies, and elsewhere. Whenever a student disrespects adults, administrators make it clear to the child that any adult in the building can tell them what to do, and the student has to be able to accept that. 

If a student feels that an adult mistreats him or talks to him unprofessionally, then he can tell that to an administrator, or ask his parent to talk to an administrator, and we will address it. But correcting adults is an adult’s job, not a child’s prerogative. It will never be okay for a student to defy or disrespect an adult in our building.

De-escalating Language
Because the way people talk to kids can either escalate or de-escalate them, I require my staff to be trained in a behavior model that addresses our use of language with kids. When all adults in a building adopt a relational, business-like communication style, student misbehavior decreases significantly. Yelling and scolding occur so infrequently in our building that we are surprised, and even aghast, when we hear it. In several instances, we have asked substitute teachers who default to fussing and denigrating kids not to come back to our building.

Common Rules and Consequences
All classroom teachers require the same five rules or expectations for behavior. They invoke the same four-step consequences for infractions to those rules. By the end of September, nearly every teacher has made believers of the majority of their students, and we begin to work on the 15% or so who are chronic, using our more intrusive behavior model, BIST (Behavior Intervention Support Team). 

Students with Chronic Behavior Problems
Chronic kids are those who do not or cannot respond to a traditional, rules-and-consequences approach to discipline. They have understandable reasons for carrying entrenched anger, distrust of adults and authority, hopelessness or fear. I require all teachers to participate in ongoing training in the components of the BIST model. 

My staff has become extraordinarily effective in extending grace and accountability to chronic students. All of our teachers can develop individualized behavior plans and conduct deep processing sessions about life goals and how emotions connect with behaviors. All of our teachers can commit long-term to a supportive relationship with some of the toughest kids in school. They make a huge difference in kids' lives. 

First of all, they maintain classrooms where kids have little opportunity to hurt others, where students can hear, pay attention, and learn. Secondly, they can hold onto a certain percentage of chronic kids who just need to partner with a trusted adult in order to adjust their feelings about school personnel and control their knee-jerk, self-protective reactions to authority figures.

Intensive Care Unit
Still, we have 15 to 25 students every school year who would have been suspended or expelled from our school. These kids' behavior is so severe that the classroom teacher, even with expertise in BIST, cannot spend the kind of time and attention needed to facilitate the internal changes that lead to consistent positive behavior. In the past two years, we have been able to add an on-site alternative program that has proven effective beyond my vision for it.

We offer our School Within a School to parents at their child's long-term hearing, in lieu of a long-term suspension. No parent has opted for the five-week suspension over our alternative program. The parent and child sign our contract for the program, agreeing that the student will stay in the program until they actually and truly change. For most of these students, it takes an entire school year or longer to acquire the life skills that will enable them to succeed in the regular school program.

I feel like we finally have all the levels of support we need for all the degrees of behavior we encounter. In the first year of this program, we lost only one student to expulsion. (He was accepted into a different alternative program our district provides for very few students.)

Here is a graphic showing our school-wide system at-a-glance:

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