Suspensions are commonly used in schools as a method intended to teach students that certain behaviors are not acceptable, as well as to improve school safety. However, decades of research have shown that suspensions are ineffective for changing student behavior and can lead to worse student outcomes.
Although suspensions may be justified for violent offenses, suspensions are often used for nonthreatening problem behaviors, such as chronic absenteeism or minor disruptions. Many of these common yet challenging behaviors can be averted through implementing preventative discipline systems such as schoolwide Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS). And while providing ongoing coaching to your staff on effective classroom management skills is critical for reducing the numbers of students that are sent to the office for low-level problem behaviors, that doesn’t solve every issue. Even in the most proactive and positive schools, administrators need to handle students sent to them. For nonviolent problem behaviors, consider one of three recommended strategies that school administrators may use instead of suspension.
1. Restorative Chat
One alternative to suspension is a strategy called the restorative chat. The purpose of the restorative chat, much like other restorative practices, is to help the student understand the harm done by their actions and to allow them an opportunity to repair this harm. Engaging in a brief conversation with the student allows the student to reflect on what occurred, problem solve the situation, and understand what appropriate future actions (including support from adults) are necessary.
The sidebar below presents seven questions to ask a student when conducting a restorative chat. If the student does not want to answer questions or accept responsibility for his or her actions, the administrator may choose to switch to closed questions such as, “Was what you did fair or unfair?” or “Was your choice a good one or a poor one?” If the student responds to these questions, administrators can follow up with open-ended questions like, “Can you tell me how?” to further engage the student.
The restorative chat can be adapted to meet the needs of those involved. It can be used for peer-to-peer and peer-to-staff conflicts, but it is important to determine beforehand if the parties involved would benefit from meeting face-to-face. The most appropriate and efficient approach for minor infractions may be to discuss the situation with the student individually and develop a plan for transition and reintegration to the classroom. It is important to keep in mind that the focus of the chat should be instructive, with an aim to help the student recognize socially appropriate alternative responses to use in the future.
Another restorative practice that can be applied to a wide range of discipline referrals is restitution—a way of teaching the student to repair or eliminate the damage caused. The key feature here is the development and implementation of a plan for correcting the harm done. Although this process can be used in many different ways, the focus of restitution should be on establishing the conditions in which a student may correct his or her mistake and be reintegrated in the classroom setting.
Restitution can be used as a logical extension of the restorative chat. After evaluating the situation with the student, a restitution plan is developed. The plan may include the use of (a) an oral or written apology, (b) a re-entry meeting, (c) goal setting, and/or (d) repair to any physical damage.
When creating restitution plans, consider how to involve those who were affected by the student’s behavior. When possible, align the restitution with the original infraction. For example, if a student paints graffiti on the school walls, then he or she is responsible for cleaning it up or assisting the custodial staff. Consequences that are logically related to the offense allow the student to establish a connection between his or her choices and the natural consequences of that behavior. Although there is no one correct way to use restitution, keeping in mind the central tenets of the intervention (accountability, reparation, and educative opportunities) allows you to remain flexible when addressing behavioral infractions to meet the need of each student and situation.
Ineffective restitution plans include consequences that (a) publicly humiliate, (b) are unrelated to the problem behavior, (c) are overly punitive, or (d) do not teach a new skill. The purpose of restitution in schools is to empower students by correcting wrongdoings and equipping them with the skills to avoid similar problem behaviors in the future. Using consequences such as writing words or phrases repeatedly on the chalkboard, causing the student embarrassment in front of others, or using punishment for the sake of punishment not only fail to meet the purpose of these practices, but also decrease student engagement and connection to school.
3. Skills Coaching
Skills coaching can be used alone or in conjunction with the restorative chat and restitution planning. It is crucial that students not only understand their problem behavior and correct the situation, but also learn the skills or behaviors that they were lacking or that they could have used instead. The purpose of this strategy is the explicit teaching and practice of new or complex skills. It is an educative process that develops prosocial skills and reinforces their use in appropriate settings.
Skills coaching includes: (a) teaching and modeling a socially appropriate replacement skill, (b) providing students with opportunities to practice through discussion or role play, and (c) delivering performance feedback, including positive reinforcement and corrective feedback.
Behavioral skills coaching can be used as a brief one-on-one intervention with any student who is sent to the office. However, if discipline data show common patterns of problem behavior for groups of students, small group skills coaching may be more efficient and effective. Be sure to communicate this step with other support staff. Explain what skill was coached and how to monitor and provide performance feedback (positive and corrective) to provide teachers with the information necessary to recognize and reinforce (e.g., praise) the behavior in the natural setting.
Sidebar: Restorative Chat Questions
Tell me what happened. Allows the student to share his or her version of events and be heard by a nonjudgmental adult listener.
What were you thinking at the time? Provides an opportunity to understand the student’s intent and provide insight into the student’s level of social and emotional development.
What do you think about it now? Provides the opportunity for the student to reflect back on his or her actions when calm and take responsibility for them.
Who did this affect? Provides an opportunity for the student to demonstrate accountability and articulate an understanding of how his or her actions affect other people.
What do you need to do about it? Provides the student with the chance to explore ways in which the situation can be rectified. It also presents an opportunity for the student to take an active role in correcting the wrongdoing. The response can provide a natural segue into a restitution plan.
How can we make sure this doesn’t happen again? Gives the student an opportunity to reflect on the support and skills he or she needs for future success. Provides a natural segue into behavior skills coaching.
What can I do to help you? Allows the student to recruit the help that he or she needs to be successful. Provides an opportunity for relationship building and an understanding that the student has support in making reparations.