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Saturday, May 18, 2013

Suspending Suspensions

I just read a news article about the LA School District ending its policy for suspending defiant students. I don't know how far this policy extended or if teachers and principals were previously told that suspension was required if a student was defiant.  Did this mean that if  students refused to do anything that they risked being suspended?

This reminded me of one of the saddest moments I had as a principal.  There was this first grade student  who had transferred to our school having spent the previous year in kindergarten in a different school. His family was pretty transient and he ended up only spending one year at our school.  When we reviewed his records from kindergarten, it turned out that he was suspended 5-6 times during that previous school year.  If this boy had any problem, it was that he was rambunctious.  I didn't consider rambunctious a problem-it was sort came with the territory of being a young boy.  I considered it our job as educators to make schools work for all students especially kids who were just learning how to "go to school".  If you stop and think about it (a lot of adults don't do this) it is not easy to walk into a new environment with a lot of other kids of all different backgrounds, temperaments, personalities along with all the adults that you have to figure out and expect kids to adjust to all the expectations and demands placed on them.  It is amazing that most kids make this adjustment so easily.  Just think of how long it takes us adults to adjust to new situations.

The kids who have trouble adjusting often have backgrounds where there have been issues related to trusting adults.  Many kids from these backgrounds might lack stable father figures if they have them at all.  Many kids might have had a series of adults and learned to not to depend on them.  In fact I learned early on as an educator, that many kids had to learn how to function at too early an age on their own without having to depend on undependable adults.  These were survival skills for many of kids.  In addition to being rambunctious (I enjoy kids who are rambunctious) this particular boy had learned not to automatically do what he was told.  It wasn't because he wanted to defy adults it was more that he always didn't see the reason why he should drop what interested him just because some adult decided he should stop doing what he was doing.

He had a terrific first grade teacher and  I worked with her very closely on making sure this boy would experience school as a place where he belonged and could succeed.  We decided that we both needed to invest a little more time one to one with this boy to develop  a positive relationship with him.  We both realized that he needed this extra one to one time to trust the key adults in his life-he couldn't just get it from being one kid in a class of twenty.  This extra investment worked.  The teacher maybe gave up one or two of her lunchtimes to invite him to eat with her in the classroom just to talk together.  I invited him to eat lunch with me.  She had him help her put up some bulletin boards.  We also coached him to ask for breaks if he had trouble attending for too long.  All in all we made adjustments and he responded positively.  Did he become a student who immediately did what he was told the first time every time? No.  We realized it would take some time and he continually improved not just his behavior but his academic skills.  We discovered that one of the reasons why he didn't always respond to teacher directions was because we was very afraid of failing especially at reading.  He made sure he got special support in language arts and our main intervention was helping his feel safe to try out new skills.

All in all school became a safe place he could trust and his growth in one year was significant.  His mother saw his success and did what she could to stay in our school area for the whole year, but come the end of the year, she had to move away to a new area.  On the last day of school, this boy knew that he was moving and leaving this place where he didn't get suspended 6 times.  Our school was a place where he succeeded and people helped him learn-a school where there was no doubt he belonged.  His previous experience in kindergarten had taught him that if he didn't what he was told that he couldn't stay in the school (that was how he understood suspension-I am sure.)

On the last day of school, his last day with us, on the way out the door, he bolted from his class and ran into my office as I was getting ready to say goodbye to the kids for the summer.  He caught me and locked his arms around me as tears were falling down his face and said to me, "I am going to miss this place." That was all he could say but he knew that he would be going to another school where he probably wouldn't belong, where he had to do what he was told or else. I worried a lot about him and   don't know to  this day what happened to him.  I wished that he could have stayed with us for the rest of his time.

 I don't think it is too hard or too much to ask of our schools to make them place where kids belong, feel accepted no matter what they do and get the help and support they need to succeed.  I have never met a kid who didn't want to belong or succeed,  but they  are not able to articulate those thoughts and feelings.  Too many educators forget that and only see compliance or defiance.  Those two responses are such a very small piece of their stories.

I am glad LA is suspending their suspensions but I hope that they replace that approach with one that helps kids belong, feel safe and accepted for who they are as people.

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