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Evaluating In-School
Suspension Programs

While keeping students in school is better than suspending them out of school, administrators need to monitor and assess their in-school suspension programs to ensure they are effective and not just a convenient alternative for inexperienced teachers, according to education analyst Anne Wheelock. Administrators need to keep an eye on who is being suspended and who is doing the suspending. Included: Tips for monitoring and assessing school suspension programs.

Anne Wheelock, a research associate with the Progress Through the Education Pipeline program at Boston College's School of Education, has analyzed school suspension programs in Massachusetts and written about national school reform issues. While keeping students in school is better than excluding them, according to Wheelock, schools need to ensure that their in-school suspension programs are not just "holding tanks." Ideally, schools should develop programs to help students and faculty resolve conflicts to reduce the need for suspensions.

Wheelock is the author of numerous books, including Crossing the Tracks: How 'Untracking' Can Change America's Schools. Wheelock shared some thoughts with Education World about in-school suspension programs.

Education World: What characteristics make an in-school suspension program an effective learning tool?

Anne Wheelock: The overall strategy should include a wide range of approaches including bullying prevention, conflict mediation, peer training for mediation, professional development for teachers, rewards for positive behavior (catch them "being good"), detracking [grouping students heterogeneously], and delabeling. Teachers and parents should be aware of the difference between punishment and discipline and strive to develop the second.

EW: Do you find that in-school suspension is growing in popularity? If so, why do you think that is?

Wheelock: Regarding in-school suspension, I just don't know for sure! I'd be interested in what others think. My impression is that with resources stretched so thin, and little funding for "extras" available, schools are resorting to more out-of-school suspensions and exclusions -- with an increase in these based on "catch-all" categories like "disruption" or "other" (and that can range from throwing a potato chip in the cafeteria to name-calling.)

EW: Is in-school suspension appropriate for all grade levels? Why or why not?

Wheelock: I think exclusion of any kind -- exclusion, suspension out of school, suspension in school -- is harmful to elementary students and says more about the weak school climate, limited resources, and the lack of adult capacity to address student needs than anything else. Elementary students with problems severe enough to trigger suspension of any kind are kids with problems and these are kids who need services.

In 2002, the news hit the papers of many suspensions in kindergarten in Philadelphia. When these were investigated further, it turned out these suspensions were clearly the result of poor judgment on the part of teachers. One case I remember was a kindergartner with cerebral palsy who had gone to the bathroom and had not pulled up his zipper. Just having an in-school suspension program doesn't eliminate such poor judgment.

EW: How can administrators monitor in-school suspension programs?

Wheelock: One question to ask is: Who's doing the suspending? Some schools I know examined their in-school and out-of-school suspension data and found that an interesting pattern emerged: Often, only a few teachers are responsible for the majority of student suspensions, whether in-school or out-of-school. Sometimes this reflects teacher inexperience. In schools I know that have seen this pattern, principals have worked closely with these particular teachers to help them strengthen classroom management skills and establish a more positive classroom climate.

Read More

For more practical tips for creating a successful in-school suspension program, read another Education World article, In-School Suspension: A Learning Tool.

Sometimes the clustering of suspensions from a few teachers reflects school tracking and ability grouping practices that group problem students in single classrooms or programs and provide these students with the least engaging curriculum and/or the least experienced or respected teachers. Almost all the schools I surveyed for Crossing the Tracks: How 'Detracking' Can Save America's Schools reported that detracking (with all the changes in routines that that implies) improved behavior and reduced suspensions.

EW: What are some alternatives to in-school suspension?

Wheelock: We know that caring relationships in schools can reduce student alienation. In-school suspension programs must be viewed in the larger context of school climate. When teachers examine their school climate and school routines and explore the impact of school structures and routines on student engagement, they sometimes come up with ways to change harmful routines into ones that are more nurturing school communities. Large schools, for example, can be broken into small schools or teams, or student course loads can be reduced (for example, teachers teach social students and English as a humanities block, not just English, or just social studies.) With teachers more connected to students, whole-school in-school suspension programs -- as distinct from, say, detention or another consequences -- may not be necessary.

Other suggestions:

  • Involve professionals from outside the school in solving problems that arise in school relationships. Develop a strategy that involves other professionals from the wider community in problem-solving about school climate, discipline, and student needs. Dr. Gwynedd Lloyd and her colleagues in the United Kingdom found that schools could reduce suspensions of all kinds by establishing routines that allowed for inter-agency meetings that focused, in some cases, on the needs of individual children, and in other cases on broader strategies for improving discipline and school climate.
  • Provide support to teachers. In examining patterns of suspension, many schools find that teachers themselves can benefit from in-class support to reduce disciplinary incidents. Support can take a number of forms. In some schools, support is offered in the form of cooperative teaching so that new teachers can learn more effective classroom management skills. Sometimes, support takes the form of curriculum review, so that teachers can learn to differentiate and diversify the curriculum to engage students with a variety of learning styles. Sometimes, support takes the form of an aide in the classroom who can work with specific children.
  • Establish mediation and restitution programs staffed by a teacher trained in mediation and problem-solving. When students and staff have the opportunity to sit down with a trained mediator -- including their peers trained as student mediators -- they can begin to learn different ways of resolving conflict that avoid suspension. Mediation between students and students or students and teachers should result in a contract that spells out what each will do should problems arise. Contracts also can include provision for restitution of harm. Teachers who worry that students will "get away" with unacceptable behavior can see that students accept consequences for actions they've taken; students learn that their actions have implications for others and that as member of the school community, they are expected to repair harm. Remember, conflict is normal in any human activity. Schools can play a key role in helping students develop the skills to address the sources of conflict in productive ways. Educators for Social Responsibility and the Association for Conflict Resolution are good starting places to look for resources and consultation.

EW: What connections did you find between students being suspended and students dropping out?

Wheelock: A number of research studies, both in the United States and the United Kingdom, have consistently found strong correlation between suspension/exclusion and students dropping out. Students who are suspended begin to lose their connection to school and come to believe that "school is not for me." In particular, students who experience repeat suspensions and who are overage for their grade are at high risk of dropping out.

This e-interview with Anne Wheelock is part of the Education World Wire Side Chat series. Click here to see other articles in the series.

Article by Ellen R. Delisio
Education World®
Copyright © 2007 Education World


Last updated 07/18/2011