When it comes to creating and maintaining a school’s climate, some schools place an emphasis on compliance and order. Often, this comes with a strict set of rules, zero tolerance policies, and exclusionary discipline. Students who run afoul of this code of conduct can find themselves subject to a prescribed set of punishments, up to and including school suspensions or expulsion.
Many of us remember our own school days, when the news of a fellow student’s suspension would spread like wildfire through school. Common reactions might include relief, intrigue, or even anger about the situation. Our teachers probably felt the same way. Still, it’s likely none of us considered how such exclusionary discipline (like school suspension) hurts students.
Punishment by Exclusion
Suspensions are an exclusionary practice that removes or excludes a student from the educational setting. Proponents say that such exclusion makes classroom management easier for teachers and creates a better learning environment. But while suspensions may provide temporary relief in the classroom, they stunt behavioral and educational growth for the affected students.
Many schools, however, have moved away from exclusionary discipline practices. Research suggests that such discipline has long-term, far-reaching effects for both students and society:
It hurts individual success
Perhaps the most obvious impact of exclusionary discipline is on a student’s academic achievement. Certainly, a student who is not in class is not learning. Students who miss classroom instruction have a more difficult time catching up academically to their peers. Many may not recover sufficiently enough to move forward. This can lead to higher drop-out rates, and consequently, lower graduation rates.
It hurts society through resulting behavior
Not only does removing a student from the academic setting drive lower graduation rates, but it also creates a barrier to further education. Students who drop out are less likely to return to their education, less likely to graduate college, and more likely to get arrested or be on probation. They may never reach their full earnings potential or make significant contributions to society.
It hurts the achievement rates of their peers
This might be the biggest surprise of them all. Research has shown that even well-behaved students suffer the impacts of suspensions. In schools with high levels of suspensions, even students who had never been suspended posted lower scores in reading and math evaluations.
Flipping the Script on School Suspensions
In the face of mounting evidence regarding exclusionary discipline, schools would be wise to consider alternatives to a punitive environment. At the opposite end of the disciplinary scale are early intervention discipline models, which focus on social-emotional learning (SEL). SEL centers around a culture of respect and understanding prioritized within a school. There is a focus on social and emotional learning and character education.
Incorporating SEL into the school setting has larger implications, including:
Improved test scores
Students who are in class and function within SEL programs realize an 11% gain in grades and test scores. SEL helps students develop self-regulation, which can translate into improved student focus and increased instructional time.
Stronger teacher-student relationships
SEL programs also instruct their participants regarding conflict and crisis issues which can threaten children’s social, emotional, and cognitive development. This requires promoting positive teacher-student relationships. The opportunity to be present, engaged, and with nurturing adults can positively impact health, behavior, and ability to learn for decades following stressful events.
Return on investment
The Center for Benefit-Cost Studies in Education at Teachers College Columbia brings to light the “11-to-1 ratio” in their recent study. In researching the impact of six social-emotional learning curricula, the authors found that “on average, for every dollar invested equally across the six SEL interventions, there is a return of eleven dollars, a substantial economic return.”
Choosing SEL Over Exclusionary Discipline
Implementing SEL takes more effort, but the impacts are significant, both within the educational setting and in the community at large. Social and educational benefits include self-awareness, positive self-image, awareness of and empathy for others, healthy relationships, and problem-solving and responsible decision-making. More broadly, economic benefits range from increased health, work, and earnings to the reduction of substance abuse, conflict, crime, and incarceration.
The evidence speaks for itself: SEL is invaluable to students, especially those in conflict and crisis-affected areas. By fostering a quality, inclusive, and safe learning environment, SEL can restore children and youth’s sense of stability, dignity, and hope.