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First things first – reframing discipline practices to reduce school suspensions September 4, 2011

Posted by Editor21C in Engaging Learning Environments, Primary Education, Secondary Education.
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from Dr Brenda Dobia

In her first post, Brenda Dobia examines the trends in school suspensions and comments on approaches for schools to reduce suspensions by encouraging positive behaviours.

The NSW Federation of Parents and Citizens’ Associations recently made the Sydney Morning Herald with the heading Parents want naughty students to serve time in school. Parents from the Central Coast were questioning departmental guidelines on suspension and the ways some schools were implementing them. They argued for clearer communication with parents, the right of appeal and the option of in-school suspensions.

This follows a recent report highlighting a 33% increase in long suspension rates in state public schools between 2005 and 2009 (Uniting Care Burnside, 2011). The data for suspensions shows disproportionate trends, with regions that have higher rates of social disadvantage showing higher rates of suspension.  Similar disparities have been found in other states and internationally (Hemphill & Hargreaves, 2009). In their Australian study Hemphill et al (2010) found that the higher rates of suspension in disadvantaged communities remain significant even after controlling for factors such as antisocial behaviour, gender, age, family functioning, peer group and academic failure.

Excluding students from school frequently compounds academic difficulties and undermines engagement. Suspension increases antisocial behaviour and has negative impacts on students’ wellbeing in both the immediate and longer term (Hemphill et al, 2010). With 42% of suspensions handed out for ‘persistent disobedience’, there is a clear need for more proactive approaches to encourage appropriate behaviour and re-engage students who may be struggling with school for a variety of reasons.

Effective school strategies address student behaviour and wellbeing. While setting clear limits for behaviours that place students or others at risk of harm, a critical focus is placed on teaching and supporting pro-social behaviours that contribute to students’ sense of personal efficacy and acknowledge their contributions to the school community.

Schools and teachers who adopt this approach understand that discipline does not mean punishment. Discipline, deriving from the latin word disciplina which means ‘instruction’ or ‘knowledge’, is fundamentally about teaching. Effective teachers have a range of teaching strategies at their disposal to help students succeed in learning constructive behaviours.

Establishing the right settings to encourage positive behaviour is key. In Positive Behaviour Support (PBS), or Positive Behaviour for Learning (PBL), getting the whole school on board in order to come up with a set of clear, positively framed expectations is a vital starting point. Ensuring that everyone agrees on the core expectations and that students are taught what it means to be respectful, be safe or be responsible (for example) in the playground, in the corridors, at the canteen or the bus stop, means that everyone knows what is expected (Mooney et al, 2008). Students’ efforts to demonstrate positive behaviours are recognised and valued.

To ensure success a consistent approach is needed. Often parents and teachers think consistency means meting out the same punishment regardless of circumstances. This rarely provides the best outcomes. Efforts to be consistent should emphasise consistent expectations. Providing effective support to meet expectations is crucial.

Just as with any other aspect of the curriculum, different children will need different levels of support to meet behavioural expectations. Some children learn what is expected quickly and need little prompting. Often these are children who already have effective skills for regulating their emotions and getting on with others. For others it is a huge stretch. Targeted approaches that provide focused support according to the specific needs of the child may be needed.

The reasons why some children have trouble conforming to school behaviour expectations are often complex. Perhaps they have had limited experience of effective modelling at home; perhaps there have been disruptions to their lives which have been difficult to cope with; perhaps they have been treated unfairly and as a result are on guard for any hint of possible injustice; perhaps they have experienced trauma that has undermined their trust in others and led to erratic emotional responses. There are many more possible reasons for student misbehaviour, including reasons relating to students’ experience of school.

While schools and teachers are not responsible for circumstances arising outside the school context that influence student behaviour, they can still be responsive to students’ needs. A whole school approach is required to promote positive behaviour and wellbeing. Rather than relying on a system of regulations and sanctions, successful school initiatives are geared to promoting positive relationships, preventing problems where possible, and intervening early where necessary by bringing together students, teachers, parents or carers and support services in order to tailor their approach to the particular needs of the student (Graetz et al., 2008).

Students who experience school as a place where they are cared for, listened to and treated fairly feel more connected to school (Murray-Harvey & Slee, 2007; Resnick et al., 1997; Rowe et al., 2007). School connectedness has been found to reduce behavioural problems (Loukas et al., 2010), increase wellbeing (Shochet et al., 2006) and improve school achievement (Bond et al., 2007).  Building a climate of caring and connectedness between students, staff and parents places emphasis on the quality of relationships. It turns out this is a far more effective way to enhance wellbeing, reduce school suspensions and improve learning (Dix et al., 2011; Slee et al., 2009). By the way, it makes teaching more satisfying too.

References:  Arlington, K. (2011).  Parents want naughty students to serve time in school, Sydney Morning Herald, July 30. [online] www.smh.com.au/national/education/parents-want-naughty-students-to-serve-time-in-school-20110729-1i47o.html#ixzz1TjpUNNgn.   Bond, L., Butler, H., Thomas, L., et al. (2007). Social and school connectedness in early secondary school as predictors of late teenage substance use, mental health and academic outcomes. Journal of Adolescent Health, 40, 357.e9–357.e18.   Dix, K. L., Slee, P. T., Lawson, M. J. & Keeves, J. P. (2011). Implementation quality of whole-school mental health promotion and students’ academic performance. Child and Adolescent Mental Health. [online]doi: 10.1111/j.1475-3588.2011.00608.x.    Graetz, B., Littlefield, L., Trinder, M., Dobia, B., Souter, M., Champion, C., Boucher, S., Killick-Moran, C., Cummins, R. (2008). KidsMatter: A population health model to support student mental health and wellbeing in primary schools. International Journal of Mental Health Promotion, 10(4) 13-20.   Hemphill, S. & Hargreaves, J. (2009). The impact of school suspensions: A student wellbeing issue, ACHPER Healthy Lifestyles Journal. 56 (3/4), 5-11.    Hemphill, S.A., Toumbourou, J.W., Smith, R., Kendall, G., Rowland, B., Freiberg, K. & Williams, J. (2010). Are rates of school suspension higher in socially disadvantaged neighbourhoods? An Australian study, Health Promotion Journal of Australia, 21(1), 12-18.   Loukas, A., Roalson, L. A. & Herrera, D. E. (2010). School connectedness buffers the effects of negative family relations and poor effortful control on early adolescent conduct problems. Journal of Research on Adolescence, 1-10.   Mooney, M. Dobia, B., Barker, K., Power, A., Watson, K., & Yeung, S., (2008). Positive Behaviour for Learning: Investigating the transfer of a United States system into the New South Wales Department of Education and Training Western Sydney Region schools: Report. Penrith NSW: University of Western Sydney. [online] http://handle.uws.edu.au:8081/1959.7/19702.    Murray-Harvey, R. & Slee, P. (2007). Supportive and stressful relationships with teachers, peers and family and their influence on students’ social/emotional and academic experience of school, Australian Journal of Guidance & Counselling, 17(2), 126-47.   NSW Dept Education and Training (2010). Long suspension and expulsion summary 2009. Sydney NSW: author. [online] https://www.det.nsw.edu.au/detresources/suspexpul2009_oEuDLGhsYu.pdf.   Resnick, M., Bearman, P., Blum, R., Bauman, K., et al. (1997). Protecting Adolescents from Harm – Findings from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, Journal of the American Medical Association, 278(10),823-822.   Rowe, F., Stewart, D. & Patterson, C. (2007). Promoting school connectedness through whole school approaches, Health Education, 107(6), 524-542.   Shochet, I. M. , Dadds, M. R. , Ham, D. & Montague, R. (2006). School connectedness is an underemphasized parameter in adolescent mental health: Results of a community prediction study, Journal of Clinical Child & Adolescent Psychology, 35(2), 170-179.   Slee, P. T., Lawson, M. J., Russell, A., Askell-Williams, H., Dix, K. L., Owens, L., et al. (2009). KidsMatter Primary Evaluation final report. Melbourne: beyondblue. [online] www.kidsmatter.edu.au/uploads/2009/10/kidsmatter-fullreport-web.pdf.   Uniting Care Burnside (2011). School suspension briefing. [online] www.childrenyoungpeopleandfamilies.org.au/__data/assets/file/0008/61784/110411_School_Suspension.pdf

Brenda Dobia is a Lecturer in social ecology and education in the School of Education at the University of Western Sydney, Australia. A psychologist and lecturer in educational psychology, she is particularly concerned about student wellbeing as the basis for student management practices in schools. She is a lead researcher in the PBL research project in NSW, and has previously been seconded to the Australian Psychological Society as National Resources Coordinator in the Kidsmatter project, in which role she was instrumental in developing Kidsmatter curriculum materials.


1. Tufan Camurtay - September 4, 2011

Mrs Brenda Dobia made a very good point. Human being does have a thinking ability, and needs to be convinced at any time, about any issue. No one is going to love their school much more or no one is going to increase their self-determination about studying after receiving a suspension that may even effect their whole future life. Convincing students’ minds, in other words, encouraging them to do the “good” should be the consensus approach of all teachers.
However, the term “Good” needs explanation. What is “Good” for everyone??? If this issue is to be solved, every aspect of that problem has to be examined. We may have not seen the most important fundamental lack. Maybe that is where problem lies in.

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