By Beth Conaway, Advisory Board Member, A Better Delaware
Public schools ensure that all students have access to a free education. As a result, they are the cornerstone of America’s future. However, our public schools are facing unprecedented challenges with teacher shortages, academic achievement, and negative school environments. Current school discipline practices play a huge role in these challenges.
Prior to Covid, schools began introducing administrators and teachers to the concept of restorative practices. Restorative practices attempt to strengthen relationships between teachers/students and student/student. Popular examples of restorative processes include affective statements (telling a person how you feel) community-building circles, small impromptu conferencing, and setting classroom agreements or norms. (Panorama Eduction Services). Teachers and administrators are trained that for students impacted by trauma and toxic stress, consequences that are not exclusionary or disciplinary in the traditional manner can be more effective in changing the behavior. Trauma based discipline states that the response or intervention for a misbehaving student needs to focus on the specific student’s needs and base the consequence on an incrementally more punitive rubric or leveled response to behaviors. The idea is to seek out the intervention that will change the behavior, not simply automatically assigning a specific response from a predetermined menu.
However, the idea of consequences and disciplinary actions changed along with the introduction of restorative practices. For example, a school may determine that a student is acting out to get attention, so rather than remove the student” to give them what he/she wants” the principal will keep the child in the classroom with or without additional adult support. In a second scenario, when a student is violent or extremely disruptive, an administrator is often brought into the classroom while the teacher takes the rest of the class out of the room. A third common scenario is that the disruptive student is removed for a short time with the administrator to participate in restorative practices and then is immediately brought back to the classroom.
There are several negative results of these actions when done without consequences:
- Loss of instructional time for all students leading to poorer achievement.
- Stress and anxiety for teachers leading to burnout and lack of teacher retention.
- Lack of instructional support from administrators to teachers as they deal with misbehavior rather than supporting the teachers in their instruction.
- An increased lack of respect from students to teachers and other students.
Students dealing with trauma and mental health needs are real. However, without disciplinary actions that support teachers and the other students in the classroom, the joy and excitement about teaching and learning will continue to erode. What began as regular instances of students cussing out teachers or acting in deliberate insubordination has escalated to a scenario where teachers are just trying to put out “bigger fires” or prevent them from occurring rather than being able to teach.
As a result, alternative classrooms, environments, and additional mental health supports need to be available to schools to give all students the supportive learning environment essential to their success.
Beth Conaway is a former teacher, who served for 8 years as Principal of the Morris Early Childhood Center and then as Principal of Milton Elementary School for 5 years. She retired after 31 years in the Delaware public school system. She currently teaches graduate courses at the University of the Cumberlands and volunteers in the Indian River School District.