Even those who are most vocally critical of suspensions as a disciplinary tool agree that there are certain times–though their duration may be shorter in some schools than others–in which students will have to leave the learning environment as a result of their behavior.
While many focus on the particulars of the way in which a school implements that removal from class (in-school? out of school?), few have written about how to help students successfully re-enter the learning environment. In Better than Carrots and Sticks, Fisher and Frey lay out six major principles of successful re-entry.
Regardless of the amount of time students have missed, they will find themselves having to reintegrate into the instructional flow of the classroom. The return can be marked with high emotions, and reactions from classmates can trigger further problematic behavior from the student.
As with most aspects of school discipline, managing the emotions of those involved is important.
1. Rehearse with the student. Discuss with the student how he or she might respond to different scenarios upon returning to the learning environment. We like to practice using phrases such as “It’s OK now” or “It’s over now” with students to answer prying questions from classmates.
Role-playing can help equip students with the tools they’ll need to handle the social stresses that come with returning after a disciplinary absence.
2. Identify a lifeline, if needed. Students returning to class or school from an emotionally charged event may find themselves more anxious or uneasy than anticipated. In such cases, educators should work with them to identify a “lifeline” they might use in case they need to take a short break upon their return.
I could see this taking a number of forms. It could be a peer with whom the student can briefly take a break, a signal to the teacher, or even another teacher in the building with whom the student has an especially close relationship. Giving students this option models a proactive problem solving approach; this should be used strategically so that students who find themselves in behaviorally challenging situations begin to make finding these “lifelines” a habit.
3. Schedule short follow-up intervals and adhere to them. Checking in with students once or twice a day after they’ve returned from an imposed absence can help to anchor their days and gives students a safety valve.
Like #2, this can be taught in such a way that students generalize this “temperature-taking” to their own lives.
4. Close the loop with the adults involved so that they can more effectively respond to students’ emotions. Teachers may have unrealistic expectations for for students who have been removed from the instructional flow, assuming they’ll be able to pick up right where they left off. Educators in charge of students’ re-entry plans should escort their students back to class on their return so that they can apprise teachers both of the students’ current state of mind and of the commitments they’ve made.
In most schools, it probably won’t be realistic to accompany the student to every class, but this can also be accomplished at a grade-level or teacher-team meeting.
5. Arrange an end-of-day check-in. These types of follow-ups can provide students with the excuse they need to peel away from friends who might otherwise escalate their misbehavior. They also give educators one more opportunity to provide students with guidance and positive affirmations.
For some students, the challenges of avoiding certain behaviors only intensifies at the end of the day (especially when a long day of successfully exercising self-control has left them cognitively “spent” and more vulnerable to lapses). A check-in can help reset and remind students of the new plan in place.
6. Implement the follow-up plan. Long-term change can only be realized when students are able to truly reflect on the harm they’ve caused and what they’ve learned since. We are not suggesting that students be forced to dwell on the past forever, but regular follow-up conversations following a major event can reduce reoccurrence and build stronger relationships between students and adults.
One of the key tenets of the restorative approach is that retributive discipline–discipline in which the goal is (implicitly or explicitly) to use aversive punishments to hold students accountable and prevent future maladaptive behavior–has been shown to be an ineffective deterrent.
But a restorative approach, while it avoids the harm done by retribute punishments such as out-of-school suspension, is unlikely to succeed either without a detailed and purposeful plan for what happens next. Fisher and Frey’s principles should go a long way toward ensuring that schools help students bounce back and prevent regression.