Minneapolis Superintendent Bans Most Suspensions for their Youngest Students

What Districts Need to do Instead of Suspending (Young) Students: Effective Student, Staff, and Student Approaches

Today, I am writing this E-Blast at 30,000 feet as I return from presenting a workshop on "How Teaching Social Skills in the Classroom Increases Academic Engagement and Reduces Discipline and Mental Health Problems" at the annual School-based Mental Health Conference that was held this week in Pittsburgh.

While I will share some reflections on the conference in two weeks, today I want to focus on a recent Education Week article. Titled "Minneapolis Superintendent Bans Most Suspensions for Youngest Students," the article describes how School Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson has placed an immediate moratorium in her district on suspending students in prekindergarten through Grade 1 for non-violent behaviors.

Clearly, for the Minneapolis schools, this decision is related to the fact that the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights is investigating the district due to its "inconsistent (read

  • Zero tolerance school discipline policies do not work;
  • Minority students and students with disabilities are disproportionately sent to the principal's office for "low level" issues like disrespect to teachers-situations that should be resolved in the classroom by the students, their teachers, and as appropriate, the students' parents, guardians, or caretakers;
  • Minority students and students with disabilities are disproportionately suspended from schools-again, often for "offenses" that often do not rise to the level of needing a suspension;
  • Preschool students are kicked out of school (typically due to behavior) more often than any other age group attending our nation's schools; and
  • Educative, restorative, culturally- and trauma-sensitive, and other school, staff, and student interventions have demonstrated their consistent ability to decrease student misbehavior, while increasing positive school and classroom climates, prosocial and effective interpersonal interactions, and students' academic engagement.

While Superintendent Johnson's decision is a good start, I hope that some additional things have occurred at the same time in the areas of:

  • Professional development,
  • Staff supervision and support,
  • Data-based problem solving, and
  • The availability of district-employed consultants (or coaches) who have the expertise to work with classroom teachers-helping them implement needed social, emotional, and behavioral interventions.

The point is:

If students are not demonstrating consistently positive and prosocial behavior in the classroom, the teachers--supported, as needed, by other support professionals--need to determine why this is happening so that classroom-based instructional or intervention approaches can be implemented to change the behavior and solve the problem.

If all we do is to make policy decision to not suspend students without the problem solving approaches focused on identifying and addressing existing problems, we are not appropriately serving students, staff, schools, or systems.

Why Do Students Demonstrate Social, Emotional, or Behavioral Challenges?

When students demonstrate social, emotional, or behavioral challenges, we need to work together to figure out why. Sometimes this can be done by an individual teacher. . . sometimes this is accomplished by a grade-level (or instructional) team working together. . . and sometimes this requires a school-level multidisciplinary early intervention team (like a Student Assistance Team, RtI Team, Student Services Team, or the equivalent).

Critically, though, everyone in the school needs to be trained in the same effective data-based problem-solving process (that addresses both academic and behavioral situations), and this process needs to be integrated into the school's RtI or Multi-Tiered Services approach. Beyond this, schools need to have professionals with extensive knowledge in classroom interventions so that problem analysis results can turn into the right effectively-implemented interventions.

Once again, we first need to understand the underlying reasons for a student's problem BEFORE we begin implementing instructional or intervention approaches.

Clearly, your doctor always does a medical analyses of your problem before beginning treatment. Doctors do not implement the same (Tier 2) interventions for every patient that walks into their office. If they did that, many patients would still be sick (or worse), and doctors would either lose patients (figuratively or literally!), and in the latter situation, they would probably lose their licenses to practice (due to successful litigation against them).

Some of the primary reasons why students demonstrate social, emotional, or behavioral problems in the classroom include:

  • They do not have positive relationships with teachers and/or peers in the school, and/or the school or classroom climate is negative. . .or negative for them.
  • They are academically frustrated (and often, unsuccessful), and this frustration and failure is exhibited emotionally, socially, or behaviorally.
  • Their teachers do not have effective classroom management skills, and/or the teachers at their grade or instructional levels do not have consistent classroom management approaches.
  • They have not learned how to apply and demonstrate effective interpersonal, social problem-solving, conflict prevention and resolution, and/or emotional coping skills to certain (school-based) situations in their lives.
  • Meaningful incentives (to motivate appropriate behavior) or consequences (to respond to inappropriate behavior, while simultaneously motivating appropriate behavior the next time) are not consistently present.
  • They are not held accountable for appropriate behavior by, for example, requiring them (a) to apologize for and correct the results of their inappropriate behavior; and (b) role play, practice, or demonstrate the appropriate behavior-after the fact-that they should have done originally.
  • Their behavior is a function of inconsistency-- across people, settings, situations, or other circumstances. For example, in the face of inconsistency across different teachers, some students will manipulate the situation or see how much they can "get away with." When peers or parents reinforce inappropriate student behavior, students sometimes use this as an excuse, or they behave inappropriately because they value their peers more than the adults in the school.
  • They are experiencing extenuating, traumatic, or crisis-related circumstances outside of school, and they need support (sometimes including mental health) to stabilize and address these situations so that they can be more successful at school.

[NOTE that many classroom teachers have received inadequate training in classroom management during their university-training, and many schools/districts do not provide systematic and ongoing in-service training and supervision in this area. This is also true of administrators. Thus, many educators are not trying to be ineffective in this area-they can only do what they know to do.]

[NOTE that there are a wide range of social, emotional, and behavioral interventions-- many that can be implemented by classroom teachers with the support of special education, related services, or mental health professionals. However, many of these professionals have not been trained in these interventions, or their roles do not include the consultation time needed to work with classroom teachers to facilitate their implementation.]


Why Do Some School-wide Approaches to Discipline and Behavior Management Not Work?

There are two reasons why many school-wide approaches to school discipline and classroom management have not worked across the country.

The first reason is that the goal for many schools is to decrease or eliminate office discipline referrals and/or school suspensions, rather than teaching and reinforcing students' social, emotional, and behavioral self-management and self-control skills.

The second reason is that effective, multi-tiered school discipline, classroom management, and student self-management processes have not been integrated into most district or schools':

  • Annual school planning and improvement process
  • Staffing and resource management process
  • Professional development and school/staff evaluation process
  • School-level Committee and shared leadership process
  • Curriculum and instruction process

For us, effective schools have the following primary goals:

  1. High levels of academic engagement and academic achievement for all students.
  2. High levels of effective interpersonal, social problem-solving, conflict resolution, and coping skills/behaviors by all students (and staff).
  3. High levels of critical thinking, reasoning, and problem-solving skills by all students (and staff).
  4. High levels of teacher confidence- relative to instruction, classroom management, and in helping students with academic or behavior problems.
  5. Consistently effective instruction and classroom management across all teachers/instructional support staff.
  6. Low levels of classroom discipline problems, discipline problems that need to involve the Principal, or discipline problems that require student suspensions or expulsions.
  7. High levels of parent support and involvement in student self-management.


Clearly, it is great that districts and schools nationwide are examining and evaluating their outcomes relative to their academic and social, emotional, and behavioral services, supports, strategies, and programs for all students. And, I applaud the Minneapolis School District for recognizing that suspensions are not going to change the (mis)behavior of their youngest students, and that different approaches are needed.

As a school psychologist and a national consultant who has worked with thousands of schools and districts over the last 30 years, I know first-hand that many of the things described above DO work and DO NOT cost excessive amounts of money. As is often said, "We can't work any harder than we are, but we CAN work smarter."

I hope that some of the ideas above resonate with you. Meanwhile, please accept my best wishes as you continue to provide the services and supports that all of your students need. Have a GREAT week !!!