Credit: Jane Meredith Adams/Edsource

When Erika Jones, a kindergarten teacher in Los Angeles, needed to know what to do for a tantrum-throwing, book-hurling kindergartner in lieu of sending him to the principal’s office, she discovered she’d have to teach herself a new approach to school discipline. “For me personally, I didn’t receive any training from the district,” she said.

As California presses school districts to stop suspending hundreds of thousands of students a year, many teachers, like Jones, say they have been under-prepared for the change, according to a new survey by the California Teachers Association released late last month. Nearly 9 out of 10 teachers surveyed said they need more training and the support of school psychologists and counselors if they are to successfully retreat from “zero tolerance” discipline practices, in which even minor infractions may result in a student being sent home for a day or more.

Yielding to research findings on the failure of zero tolerance policies and a 2015 state law, California schools have significantly cut their suspension rates in recent years. As an alternative, educators have espoused a philosophy resembling good parenting — know the child so you can understand the ‘why’ behind a meltdown, praise good behavior and seek professional help if the behavior is too complicated to manage.

Forty percent of teachers surveyed said they had received “little or no training” in alternatives to suspending students.

“We think the restorative and positive practices are the right direction to go,” said Eric Heins, president of the California Teachers Association, referring to “restorative practices” that allow students to make amends and to programs that teach positive social and emotional skills and provide counseling and other interventions. “Where it’s being done well, it’s great.”

But the survey reflected what the teachers association suspected, he said. While a lot of districts are talking about restorative practices and positive behavior supports, “not many are providing teachers with the resources to present it properly,” he said.

“What’s happening is these students are being thrown back into the classroom and nothing has been done to deal with their behavior,” he said. “There continue to be disruptions, causing frustrations on both sides.”

Eighty-six percent of the nearly 3,500 teachers and other school staff who completed an online survey between May and December 2016 said they need additional training in how to reach the students they once may have sent to the office, as well as increased access to school mental health professionals to support students in distress. Forty percent said they had received “little or no training” in alternative discipline approaches, according to the survey, which drew responses from K-12 teachers as well as from school nurses, psychologists and counselors represented by the 325,000-member association. Responses came from staff in school districts large, small, rural, urban and suburban, the California Teachers Association said.

The findings come as a landmark 2015 law to reduce suspensions heads toward expiration next year and its replacement – Senate Bill 607, authored by Nancy Skinner, D-Oakland – works its way through the Legislature. The 2015 law – Assembly Bill 420 – eliminated the ability of school principals to suspend kindergarten through 3rd grade students for disruptive or “willfully defiant” behavior, or to expel students in grades K-12 for such behavior. Research has found that school staff define disruptive or defiant behavior inconsistently and, according to noted researcher Russell Skiba of Indiana University, studies have found no evidence that African-American students misbehave more often or more intensely than their peers of other races, although they are far more likely to be suspended.

Noting the racial disparity in how suspensions for willful defiance have been doled out, four districts – Los Angeles Unified, San Francisco Unified, Pasadena Unified and Azuza Unified – deleted disruption and defiance as a justification for suspension in grades K-12 even before the ban became law for grades K-3. Oakland Unified adopted a similar ban in 2015. SB 607 would follow their lead and ban suspensions for willful defiance for K-12 students statewide. More than 20 other reasons for suspending students remain on the books. And under state education code, teachers have the right to remove a student from their class period for a day or two. That right would remain under SB 607.

The California Teachers Association neither supports nor opposes SB 607; it has a “watch” position, indicating interest in the bill, and has said it would like the bill to include funding for schools to train staff and hire mental health professionals.

Erika Hoffman, a legislative advocate for the California School Boards Association, said the success of new discipline approaches depends on training for both teachers and administrators, and not enough training has been done. The California School Boards Association has a “support, if amended” stance on SB 607 and is asking for a K-8 ban on suspensions for disruptive or defiant behavior, rather than the proposed K-12 ban.

“The issue is high school,” Hoffman said. “We still haven’t provided appropriate and real training to all teachers and all administrators on how to deal with children today.”

The teachers’ survey found that districts were far from a full roll-out of alternative discipline approaches. Eighteen percent of teachers said their district used restorative practices. Forty-five percent said their district used “positive behavioral interventions and supports,” a data-based system in which administrators track when and why students are referred to the office and whether a difference is being made by multiple interventions, from teaching students how to calm themselves to providing individual counseling.

“What we’re doing in our district is a little piecemeal now,” said Eric Myers, president of the Stockton Teachers Association, a teacher in Stockton Unified for 19 years and an alumnus of the district. “In all fairness, our superintendent is in his first year of his job and he didn’t take over until the school year programs were set.”

“The frustration is that when the (AB 420) law went into place, it did create a lot more chaos in the classroom,” he said. “They didn’t train teachers or bring programs in for teachers to learn how to address this behavior.”

Only two elementary schools in Stockton Unified have trained their staff in restorative justice techniques, Myers said — and those schools have had a large drop in suspensions, he said. How many staff members in the district are trained in the behavioral interventions tracking method is a matter of dispute, he said. He told the superintendent it was about 30 percent, while the superintendent told him it was about 80 percent, he said.

“We still haven’t provided appropriate and real training to all teachers and all administrators on how to deal with children today,” said Erika Hoffman, a legislative advocate for the California School Boards Association.

He turned to a new approach with students after an incident in 2013-14 when he was teaching junior high math, he said. A student cursed at him and refused to do his work. Myers got angry and sent the student to the office, where he received a suspension. “A week or two later, I found out that the student was actually facing a really serious family issue,” Myers said. “If I’d tried to identify what was causing it – I felt awful.”

He shifted his demeanor, asked students about their lives, and joked with them. The number of students he referred to the office dropped to five for that school year. “And the students, the difficult students, started at least trying in my class,” he said.

Pressure to refrain from suspending students is likely to increase this fall, as school suspension rates are posted for the first time in the new school accountability system, said Heins of the California Teachers Association.

“It’s a situation where we need to realign our whole thinking on how we manage students in the classroom,” said Darryl White, a former principal of elementary, middle and high schools in California and the current chair of the Black Parallel School Board in the Sacramento City School District.

The need for a new approach is clear to Jones at Los Angeles Unified. “I’ve seen students suspended for everything from laughing in line to refusing to do their work,” she said. But changing teacher attitudes about student behavior isn’t enough if students can’t get the counseling help they need, she said.

To help the kindergartner who was having violent tantrums two years ago, she referred him to a school counselor, she said. That was good fortune, and fleeting. The counselor’s position was funded by a federal School Improvement Grant. “Once that grant was gone, that support was gone,” Jones said.

“When I realize why the behavior is happening, but don’t have the resources — that’s emotionally hard,” she said.

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  1. Dr. Ernie Zarra 1 month ago1 month ago

    I have written two books on today's Generation Z students. These were released on June 1, 2017. One book for teachers: "THE ENTITLED GENERATION: HELPING TEACHERS TEACH AND REACH THE MINDS AND HEARTS OF GENERATION Z" and one for parents: "HELPING PARENTS UNDERSTAND THE MINDS AND HEARTS OF GENERATION Z." Publisher for both is Rowman & Littlefield. Both books have already proven helpful to both stakeholder groups. Feel free … Read More

    I have written two books on today’s Generation Z students. These were released on June 1, 2017. One book for teachers: “THE ENTITLED GENERATION: HELPING TEACHERS TEACH AND REACH THE MINDS AND HEARTS OF GENERATION Z” and one for parents: “HELPING PARENTS UNDERSTAND THE MINDS AND HEARTS OF GENERATION Z.” Publisher for both is Rowman & Littlefield. Both books have already proven helpful to both stakeholder groups. Feel free to get hold of me through my publisher.

  2. Kym Akintomide 3 months ago3 months ago

    The problem is not only about training. It’s about resources, too. Human capital. In early childhood classrooms, more adults are needed. Pre-K is particular vulnerable, because adult-child ratio is not aligned with the needs of children or ECE educators. Behemoth early learning centers, especially understaffed centers, are not in the best interest of children.

  3. Dea 3 months ago3 months ago

    This is a hot topic – lots of buzz in our district! We have been learning about trauma-informed intervention and found a really valuable set of video resources to help schools better understand how to work with the most challenging kids.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=322dBujEiwA (explicit language in the video but I’m sure you can relate to these kids)

    Anyone going to the 1st annual Trauma Informed School Conference in St Louis next month?

  4. soumik ghosh 3 months ago3 months ago

    It is true that teachers need training but we need have also implement attractive lessons and reduce the unnecessary burden of study. We have to let children play. Child behavior also depends on the relationship between father and mother.

  5. Dave 3 months ago3 months ago

    I heard about AB 607 on the radio today. I am thankful this is my very last year of teaching in California. The infinite wisdom of Sacramento strikes again. I as a teacher am supposed to allow some malcontent to disrupt the learning environment and sabotage everyone else’s education. What would the politicians do to a disrupter who tried to sabotage their legislative session? Why have them removed of course.
    More double standards as usual.

  6. Roger Grotewold 3 months ago3 months ago

    I have one additional point to consider in this ongoing forever discussion. With the increased possibility of charter schools and vouchers becoming an everyday reality, it is more essential than ever to increase teacher training in the area of classroom control and positive discipline methods in our public education programs. The trend supporting vouchers and charters will become increasingly evident as the best academic and positive motivated students begin to gravitate towards specialized … Read More

    I have one additional point to consider in this ongoing forever discussion. With the increased possibility of charter schools and vouchers becoming an everyday reality, it is more essential than ever to increase teacher training in the area of classroom control and positive discipline methods in our public education programs. The trend supporting vouchers and charters will become increasingly evident as the best academic and positive motivated students begin to gravitate towards specialized areas that are not a part of most public school programs. We as public school educators and advocates need to prepare for this to happen and find ways to make public schools a more positive environment for all students. We can do this with a positive activism on our part, in my judgment.

  7. Jessica Hannigan 3 months ago3 months ago

    My husband and I wrote the book Don’t Suspend Me! An Alternative Discipline toolkit to help teachers and administrators learn how to implement effective alternative discipline practices that work! Our examples and resources are created by practitioners for practitioners. We also train educators throughout the nation on this topic. Click on the link to order
    https://us.corwin.com/en-us/nam/dont-suspend-me/book252372
    Jessica Hannigan, Ed.D.

  8. Roger Grotewold 3 months ago3 months ago

    I hesitated at first to write a comment about this article. Then I read several comments already published and changed my mind. It always is the path of least resistance that seems to be used by many individuals who never really try to understand why a student acts in a negative way. Perhaps a more concentrated effort to help teachers learn to react in another way to disruptive students would benefit all … Read More

    I hesitated at first to write a comment about this article. Then I read several comments already published and changed my mind. It always is the path of least resistance that seems to be used by many individuals who never really try to understand why a student acts in a negative way. Perhaps a more concentrated effort to help teachers learn to react in another way to disruptive students would benefit all educators.
    Having supervisors, administrators and legislators telling us how it should be done is putting the buggy ahead of the horses. The folks that learn how to really function in an adverse teaching environment are certain educators who can successfully navigate their way through it. A cadre of these types of teachers should be enlisted to formulate and list their techniques that work in a positive way. But as so often happens, the people who are at this very grassroots level where teaching takes place are seldom asked or included in these types of groups. Perhaps some day down the road, someone in charge will realize that the teachers that we all remember as being instrumental in their future, will be included in groups that find solutions to educational problems. We can only hope this might happen.

    Replies

    • Don 3 months ago3 months ago

      Roger, did you really believe that a teacher with 150 students in a low performing urban middle or high school can find out why all the unruly students act out on a given day? For a school to work, a student must adhere to a modicum of basic behavior guidelines without which the class cannot proceed with learning. It is quite a leap to believe a teacher has the time or … Read More

      Roger, did you really believe that a teacher with 150 students in a low performing urban middle or high school can find out why all the unruly students act out on a given day? For a school to work, a student must adhere to a modicum of basic behavior guidelines without which the class cannot proceed with learning. It is quite a leap to believe a teacher has the time or ability to discover what makes each student tick. Nice thought though.

      • Ashley 3 months ago3 months ago

        Don, it is entirely possible (and happening all over the country) for a teacher with 150 students to build a connection and expectations with students that results in eliminating a need for punitive measures. The connection begins at the beginning and grows throughout the year, fostered by brief interactions of value, small daily measures of mutual respect and care. When you build a connection it is not necessary to figure out how each student 'ticks' … Read More

        Don, it is entirely possible (and happening all over the country) for a teacher with 150 students to build a connection and expectations with students that results in eliminating a need for punitive measures. The connection begins at the beginning and grows throughout the year, fostered by brief interactions of value, small daily measures of mutual respect and care. When you build a connection it is not necessary to figure out how each student ‘ticks’ as students will be more forthcoming, more trusting, and more respectful. It is entirely possible (and likely) that when you remove punitive measures and opt for mutual respect, high expectations, and authentic connection, behavior improves dramatically.

  9. Raoul 3 months ago3 months ago

    Seems that most any problem, whether educational, psychological, socio-economic, or medical, can apparently be solved by having trained teachers receive more training and sit through more seminars.

  10. Floyd Thursby 3 months ago3 months ago

    That's rich how the article says suspensions don't work. They don't work for the suspended student who selfishly believes because he (usually, sometimes she) is having a bad time, they have the right to spread the pain and hurt 30 other kids in the class and deprive them of an education. It is a selfish act to disrupt a classroom, not study hard or do homework or defy a teacher. It hurts … Read More

    That’s rich how the article says suspensions don’t work. They don’t work for the suspended student who selfishly believes because he (usually, sometimes she) is having a bad time, they have the right to spread the pain and hurt 30 other kids in the class and deprive them of an education. It is a selfish act to disrupt a classroom, not study hard or do homework or defy a teacher. It hurts your future and your classmates. You need to be able to suspend or expel these kids, most of whom are by their behavior so far gone nothing short of a miracle will get them to go to college and have a middle class life, to protect the other kids who are trying.
    To say suspensions aren’t working is like saying making armed robbery, rape, murder, aggravated assault and child molestation isn’t working for the incarcerated prisoners. It isn’t supposed to. Schools can’t save anyone but have to focus on raising the average black and Latino test score, and white scores which are trailing badly, by getting as many kids as possible to focus in class and read, do homework and study many more hours than most currently do. It’s hard to even start if one kid can say F-You and have zero consequence. Let’s focus on the kids who are trying, no those who selfishly disrupt others. Let’s save who we can.

    Replies

    • Tebucky Jones 3 months ago3 months ago

      Floyd, I felt defensive just hearing the contempt in your tone while reading your post. I pray you aren’t an educator, but your racist comments don’t belong on an educational website. Great article, Jane!

      • Floyd Thursby 3 months ago3 months ago

        Interesting how you interpret truth-telling as racist. So we should all lie to prove we're not racist? This policy hurts black and Latino kids because they are the ones most likely to be in the classes where misbehaving kids aren't suspended. The elite liberals who say they support this mostly don't have kids in these schools, the Pelosis and Newsoms and Clintons and Emmanuels, private or all white suburbs. If … Read More

        Interesting how you interpret truth-telling as racist. So we should all lie to prove we’re not racist? This policy hurts black and Latino kids because they are the ones most likely to be in the classes where misbehaving kids aren’t suspended. The elite liberals who say they support this mostly don’t have kids in these schools, the Pelosis and Newsoms and Clintons and Emmanuels, private or all white suburbs.
        If we don’t get black and Latino test scores to the level of white and Asian test scores now, we won’t see income equalize in 20-30 years and wealth in 50-100 and will have permanent inequality. We can’t get black and Latino test scores up without getting them tutoring support and convincing them to study far more hours, and we can’t fix income inequality without fixing test score inequality. Personally, I believe the status quo is what is racist because it will lead to racial inequality. Not suspending a few students won’t help them as much as it will hurt other kids in the class. The truth isn’t racist. It isn’t racist to point out that more Asians than whites are getting into UCs, as a percentage, or that more blacks are going to prison. It’s racist to not do anything about it.

    • Don 3 months ago3 months ago

      The obvious was not mentioned in this article. As a general rule, first you train the soldiers, then you send them into battle. Our state government thinks that changing law is the path to social change. First you have to demonstrate that an underlying policy principle can be effectively applied on the ground. Then, if successful, apply as the law of the land. Instead, the Legislature made traditional disciplinary measures unlawful and expected … Read More

      The obvious was not mentioned in this article. As a general rule, first you train the soldiers, then you send them into battle. Our state government thinks that changing law is the path to social change. First you have to demonstrate that an underlying policy principle can be effectively applied on the ground. Then, if successful, apply as the law of the land. Instead, the Legislature made traditional disciplinary measures unlawful and expected the lack of suspensions would equate to more learning. No. When you lose control of the classroom for failure to provide effective management, you invariably end with less learning. I just wish the people who gave us local control would actually give us local control and stop telling school officials how to control their students.

      • Raoul 3 months ago3 months ago

        Your reasoning is impeccable, Don. Unfortunately reasoning is unlikely to affect the usual cycling and recycling of educational fads. Educational science is so "soft" and lacking in rigor that any current fad will invariably be touted as proved by research. Experts, some self-appointed, pop up to provide training regarding the fad, for money, of course. Give it enough time to cycle and recycle and eventually suspensions will be rediscovered … Read More

        Your reasoning is impeccable, Don. Unfortunately reasoning is unlikely to affect the usual cycling and recycling of educational fads. Educational science is so “soft” and lacking in rigor that any current fad will invariably be touted as proved by research. Experts, some self-appointed, pop up to provide training regarding the fad, for money, of course. Give it enough time to cycle and recycle and eventually suspensions will be rediscovered and you will see headlines such as “Teachers seek training to effectively implement suspensions.”

        It is interesting to me that some adults assume that academic learning can take place in the presence of serious disruption and displays of defiance, when many of the same adults work in settings where such behavior would never be tolerated because such behavior would preclude effective work.

        Doubtless there will be students whose conduct will improve if underlying problems are understood and appropriate individualized responses applied. But I haven’t heard anyone is giving teachers the considerable amounts of extra time needed to gain understanding and implement. Other students will prove quite intractable and even feed on the process of whatever is directed at them. They will be the gravitational force that pulls the next recycle around as other kids complain to their own parents and teachers pull out their hair.