Picture this situation: Two six-year-old boys, Jason and Michael, get into a food fight at lunch. Globs of macaroni and cheese fly across the room. The lunchroom supervisor sends them both to the principal's office. The principal suspends the boys from school for two days.
Will the suspension correct the behavior? Not in the long-term. Research tells us that consequences for acting out must fit the misbehavior. Unless discipline focuses on teaching children how to act appropriately, they won't learn anything from it. For young children in the early grades, especially, this means that suspension, or worse expulsion or arrest, is never a good solution.
Unfortunately, many schools aren't paying attention to the research.
Suspension in the early grades is becoming a disturbing trend: Elementary schools are suspending children who are still learning to read, control their bodies and manage their emotions to deal with their behavior problems. In the past few weeks, reports surfaced in the Washington, DC metro area about young children who have been suspended or expelled for fighting, throwing tantrums and disrupting the class. Recently, a school in California suspended a 6-year-old for brushing against his friend's groin while playing. In Florida, an 8-year-old with special needs was arrested last February and charged with aggravated-assault for throwing a piece of a pipe at his teachers. Also last year, a school in New York City suspended a 9-year-old boy for two days for putting a "kick me" sign on another student.
A suspension won't make that 9-year-old think twice about making another sign. Many students in this age group, especially in kindergarten and the early grades, may not even understand why they've been told not to get on the school bus for one or two days in row. The "lesson" of their punishment is likely lost on them. According to a paper from the Civil Rights Project at UCLA and The Equity Project at Indiana University, suspension can actually harm students in the long-term. Suspended students are more likely to struggle academically and drop out of school because often they are the same students who need the most support from school. Missing multiple days or being suspended multiple times only drags students further behind.
Children learn to act appropriately through their interactions with parents, teachers and peers. But not every child develops the social-emotional skills that help them control their behavior -- such as understanding their feelings, managing emotions, regulating behavior and developing empathy -- at the same time. And not every child has had the benefit of an early education and stable home situation that gives them a chance to practice these skills.
One study from Child Trends reported that kindergarten teachers rate 20 percent of their students lacking these skills. Many children learn to manage their emotions or control their impulses in kindergarten and first grade. But for others it sometimes takes much longer. That's why elementary schools should use discipline as teaching tool instead of as punishment.
Better disciplining options exist. In the food fight between Jason and Michael, for example, the principal could have instructed the boys to clean the tables in the cafeteria instead of leaving for recess. For other more serious infractions, schools could call a parent conference or ask parents to come to school with the student to help manage their behavior. In many cases, students with troubling behavior should meet with the guidance counselor whose job is to build a relationship with the student, uncover the roots of the behavior problems and help parents and teachers decide how to address them. Some innovative schools and preschools are also starting to use mental health specialists to give teachers tips on preventing children's outbursts and handling challenging behavior.
"There is actually a lot teachers can do to prevent problem behavior," says Walter Gilliam, director of the Edward Zigler Center in Child Development and Social Policy at the Yale Child Study Center. By sticking to routines and smoothing transitions from one activity to the next, he says, chaotic behavior problems can be curtailed.
Alternatives to suspension take more thought, time and in some cases investment -- like making counselors available. But those investments are worth it to help children learn from their mistakes, and develop the skills that will ultimately keep bad behavior from repeating. In the early grades, discipline should be a teaching tool. Suspension does not teach. All too often, it is the canned response. When it comes to young children, even one suspension is too many.