Each year, more than 3 million students face out-of-school suspensions (OSS), typically for nonviolent behavior. Students with disabilities and students of color are generally suspended at higher rates than their peers.

If we simply remove students from instruction, how can we improve their behavior or their learning? More than two decades of research show that suspensions are associated with a variety of negative student outcomes, such as lower academic performance, decreased engagement, and higher dropout rates.

One way to reduce suspensions and expulsions is to implement a proactive, preventive schoolwide culture framework such as Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) or Social Emotional Learning (SEL) programs, which promote the teaching, modeling, and acknowledgment of desired behaviors in children. In addition, several effective alternatives to suspension and expulsion are being successfully utilized by schools across the country. These strategies, when used in conjunction with a positive school culture, have shown positive outcomes for children and schools.

Consider these strategies as alternatives to suspension and how they may be used in a school setting.

Alternative programming involves changing a student’s schedule, classes, or program to avoid problematic environments or situations. This allows the student to have access to the curriculum and school while learning the negative consequences of engaging in inappropriate behaviors. This is only an effective strategy, however, if the root causes of the student’s behavior challenges are also addressed.

A behavior contract is a written agreement between a student and teacher, and it often includes the parent or guardian. The contract indicates the behavior expectation for the student, the reinforcement to be used when the student is successful, and an appropriate consequence if the student doesn’t behave according to the contract. This provides the student with structure and supports self-management.

Community services are tasks that students can be assigned outside of school hours to help in a particular area. These activities strengthen students’ ties with the community and help them develop positive relationships with other adults. These tasks can also serve as a positive outlet for excessive energy. Examples include helping students in other classrooms, organizing books in the library, planting flowers or assisting with gardening, or working in the cafeteria.

Counseling has been found to be an extremely effective alternative to suspension. Consult with the school counselor when a student is exhibiting a pattern of negative behavior choices. The counselor can teach the student replacement skills and build their self-esteem.

In-school suspension (ISS) is a disciplinary technique that is designed to penalize the problem behavior without removing the student from the academic community. ISS may range from a class period to several days. The student continues to have access to the curriculum and school while learning the negative consequences of engaging in inappropriate behaviors and working to decrease the number of inappropriate behaviors.

Minicourses or skill modules are short units of self-study related to the student’s inappropriate behavior. The courses should be designed to increase the student’s awareness or knowledge of the specific behavior exhibited. These modules might include readings, videos, workbooks, tests, or oral reports on topics such as conflict resolution, anger control strategies, getting along with others, and appropriate communication skills. Through the minicourses, the student learns pro-social behavior, remains in school, and decreases the number of inappropriate behaviors.

Problem-solving offers practical skills for helping children learn how to think through and resolve everyday conflicts. Through games and exercises, they learn interpersonal cognitive problem-solving skills, including the ability to pinpoint a problem, identify solutions, choose the best solution, and follow through on the chosen solution.

Restitution involves compensating for loss, damage, or injury caused. It can be used as an alternative to suspension by repairing whatever damage was caused by the offense. Some examples include cleaning walls that the student wrote on; creating a caring environment (e.g., sending a note, making a handmade gift, offering to help another student, tutoring younger students); or repairing, restoring, or improving school property.

Restorative justice empowers students to resolve conflicts on their own and in small groups. Essentially, the idea is to bring students together in peer-mediated small groups to talk, ask questions, and air their grievances.

Social skills instruction teaches students appropriate interpersonal communication skills, self-discipline, and problem-solving skills. It combines a number of strategies to prevent and replace problem behaviors while increasing skills and behaviors leading to social competence. This tactic is most effective when it becomes a part of the daily academic curriculum and is implemented on a class and schoolwide basis.

Tools and Resources

There are a number of tools and resources that can be used to support these strategies. For example, an SEL assessment such as the Devereux Student Strengths Assessment (DESSA), can be used to measure SEL competencies and help teachers and support staff better understand each student’s unique social-emotional strengths and needs. A behavior inventory can provide schools with a curated set of behaviors related to SEL competencies.

By using online tools or apps, such as the Kickboard school culture system, educators can record these behaviors in real time; define and monitor behavior intervention plans; and analyze and act on behavior data on an individual, group, class, or schoolwide level.

With effective alternatives to suspension, as well as programs and tools to promote positive student behavior, schools can reduce office referrals, suspensions, and expulsions—and create safe, supportive school environments that are more conducive to teaching and learning.

LaTisha Vaughn-Brandon is the owner and lead educational consultant at Vaughn-Brandon Consulting. She previously served as an assistant associate superintendent and a principal in Charleston County School District in South Carolina.