Suspension – A failure of discipline

Introduction – Two perspectives

When a student is suspended from school there is always a failure of discipline and not always only by the student. When a student’s actions seriously breach the school’s discipline policy redress by the school is required. However, the circumstances leading to a suspension often involve teachers who are ill equipped to handle students with behavioural disabilities. The school, its discipline code, the way sanctions are applied, authoritarian teachers and inexperienced teachers can be contributors to suspension.

Recently, the NSW Department of Education has been reviewing its policies and procedures for suspension and circulated a consultation document A new student behaviour strategy. Before commenting on this document some discussion of the basics around suspensions.

Purpose of schooling

Schools are places of learning and not welfare institutions. The extent of the focus on learning within the school is a key to overall discipline. In schools where classes are participating day by day in meaningful, well-prepared and engaging lessons, a climate for learning carries its own discipline. When students are not engaged in learning, then trouble awaits the teacher when problems in students’ home and social environments surface and overwhelm the learning context. Even in ideal learning contexts, prepared and experienced teachers can occasionally be caught in these situations when some behaviours burst through.

While meeting the social, emotional and physical needs of students are not prime purposes of schooling, schools provide a range of personal support programs to support student learning. Such programs are support and not the main purpose of schooling.

Discipline in general

As outlined in the booklet A practical guide to classroom discipline,(Gore 2018) discipline is always about self-discipline, about students restricting their behaviour and doing what is right because it is what is best for them while working with others. If discipline prevails in a school and its classrooms, there should be little call on discipline policies and their sanctions, including suspension.

For the teacher, achieving classroom discipline requires an inner search about their own beliefs including whether they actually like all their students and, for Christian teachers, whether they love them and how that love is expressed. It also involves beliefs about student centred learning and democratic practices. Student self-discipline requires teacher discipline in how they set up their learning environment, their lesson preparation, their classroom routines, their supervision of students’ work and how they relate to each student.

In this context, any lack of student self-discipline should be dealt with appropriately, i.e. simply addressed, not ignored. Most breeches will require only a verbal reminder of the task at hand or a reprimand on the side and, if possible, not in front of the whole class. Talking with students individually after class and expressing the problem that their behaviours are causing, with the teacher sharing their feelings will help to focus on the behaviours and not the students’ worth. If first actions are ineffective and the problem escalates a different strategy is needed. Using the school’s resources for difficult cases, rather than the teacher taking all responsibility introduces other strategies. The school also has personnel and resources beyond the school that can be engaged to support both the teacher and the student. These resources should be accessed.

Promoting self-discipline is a key to avoiding suspension resulting from classroom misbehaviour.

The clash of school, home and society.

Increasingly, the problems of our society have encroached on schools and students who are the products of abuse – physical, sexual and emotional – have little experience of trusting adults (teachers), resulting in fragile relationships between students and teachers. Yet, these students seek an authentic adult that can be relied on and communicated with. Although students are not friends and are not usually seeking friendship, they seek an adult who they can relate to.

A teacher can be sympathetic, but still able to encourage students and to use the school’s resources to address issues that are beyond the capacity of the individual teacher to respond to. The teacher needs to have boundaries which allow others to assist.

Teachers will comment that in some schools, they can have a majority of students within a class carrying these problems. For some students, their experiences of abuse can influence the way they treat others, especially when they are placed in defensive situations. Like poking a snake with a stick, some teachers demand more than the student has capacity to give and get bitten. Being the significant adult for these students is tough, but only with careful mentoring can the needs of the students and, in particular their learning needs, be addressed.

There is much debate about school discipline policies. The four principles that should inform a policy are relationships, rules, rewards and sanctions. The focus of self-discipline is relationships carried out in the context of a set of school rules that everyone accepts and has been involved in forming. Within this system students who have contributed to student, class and school success should be acknowledged and where there is indiscipline appropriate sanctions taken of which the end of the line is suspension.

What to do with difficult students

I can hear many of the teachers reading this saying you’ve lost touch, the students at my school don’t want to work and we are overwhelmed by the problems they bring to school. Some of these students are just so difficult, verbally they are abusive when challenged, violent when upset or pressured and non-communicative with staff.

While there is no simple solution other than following the principles set out above here are a few practical suggestions that Christians in particular might find useful.

1. Be friendly to the lonely and unlikable

In every school, there are students who do not fit in and are lonely. Then there are some students who are so unpopular with teachers, mostly with good reason, that they feel no-one on staff likes them or is interested in them. These students usually do not relate to any staff member and the larger the school the more likely they are to slip under the radar. Getting to know these students can be very useful to them and to the teacher. I remember as a head teacher in one school walking through the playground of a morning and taking the time to say hello to a few of these students. Slowly they responded and we communicated a few sentences. They would look for me in the morning to say hello and if absent on other school business, would give me the third degree about where I had been the day before. Having this relationship was helpful because I knew as a head teacher that these were the students who were likely to be sent to me at some stage by one of my teachers for discipline. Because we had a relationship already, it was possible to talk through the issues and have them accept a plan for a way forward that might include sanctions.

2. Love the unlovely

In every class there are some students who are hard to like, let alone love. But Christians are called to love their students just as God loves them. The most important point here is that showing love to these students establishes relationship. Without relationship, the student believes that the teacher does not like them, then if the teacher attempts to correct or admonish these students confrontation occurs, followed by escalation and abuse. When a student believes that they are not liked by their teacher, then they don’t accept discipline and don’t care about their behaviour or its consequences.

Suspension an extension of time out.

Both schools and parents practice time out to help students manage their own behaviours. While extended time out might be seen as a punishment by students, removing a student from a potential situation of indiscipline is a smart move by teachers and popular action amongst primary teachers. Whether that is putting the attention seeker at a desk at the back of the room to take away their audience, or removing a student temporarily from a class altogether, the benefits are a de-escalation of tension, frustration and confrontation and an opportunity to discuss the issues with the student at another time.

Suspension is the end product of other school sanctions on students or because a particular act is so serious that it demands immediate time out from school not only class, and discussion with parents, for instance in cases of severe gang-like bullying, physical assault or sexual harassment. Time out suspensions are similar to other time-out sanctions, they provide an opportunity for the school, the student and usually the parents to address the reasons for, and the issues that led to the suspension.

Schools don’t have a lot of available sanctions when serious or protracted indiscipline occurs. They tend to suspend for as long as both the policy allows or to use the length as a punishment. However, the longer the suspension the more difficult the return to school. Ideally, the discussion with the student and the parent should address the reasons for the suspension and try and get to a position where the student really wants to return to school. If the student’s anger is so great then they may not want to return to school then this poses another set of issues for the school once the student is made to return.

Coming back

The negotiations around a student returning to school can be very difficult for all parties. Where the student acknowledges their indiscipline and seeks to apologise to anyone hurt by their actions in return for acceptance back into class, then the matter can usually be resolved. However, for some students the inappropriate actions by a teacher can be a factor in the student’s indiscipline. Difficult students need to be managed carefully and authoritative teachers can be very assertive at inappropriate times turning situations into a power struggle and provoking students to actions they might otherwise not consider. This leads to a focus on whether there are things that must change at the school level for a student to be integrated successfully back into the classroom as well as the student.

Some years ago, I had a responsibility for student welfare in a region and there were a considerable number of suspensions where the school basically didn’t want the student to return and at best sought another school for placement. I found that in some cases, students can be the subject of overzealous teachers who make unreasonable demands when students are upset or angry with other people and situations in their life. Pushing the right buttons leads to an outburst towards a teacher which was really a response to other matters going on in the student’s life. In these situations, schools have a lot of work to do when students are suspended to ensure that students are really wanted back and that the circumstances that led to their suspension have been address by both school and the student. To address this problem, a procedural document was produced called Coming back which sought to outline the process for both the student and the school including the adjustments that both might need to make for a successful return.

Special students

Aboriginal students Suspension is probably the worse type of sanction for Aboriginal students, especially those living outside metropolitan areas. There is so much effort put into getting Aboriginal students consistently to attend school that any disruption through suspension only confirms a message in the minds of some Aboriginal communities – you are not wanted. Schools that have successful attendance rates for Aboriginal students are those that have developed good communication with community representatives, Aboriginal elders and parents. Understanding the background of Aboriginal students should lead to a pedagogy that empowers and enhances their learning. It is not alright to lose these students in the broader community.

Students with disabilities

Students who are emotionally disturbed or have behavioural disorders pose particular problems for teachers and are often allocated placement in special small class units to assist their learning. In one sense, this is like suspension from the mainstream of schooling to address particular needs. The aim should always be to integrate these students back into the mainstream classes but successfully not prematurely so that the problem behaviours don’t continue risking the learning of other students as well as this student.

A new student behaviour strategy, NSW Department of Education

The “new” strategy allows for most of the features that have been discussed above but it is hard to find something new other than promises to do it better. Increase services to support schools, improved teacher professional learning and better liaison with communities and other government departments have been strategies for many years. What is new, is the concrete changes to suspension policy. Unfortunately, many teachers and school administrators will see these changes as an erosion of existing power and less options to deal with difficult student behaviour problems. Unless the department (NSW government) can make good its plan for increased services and professional learning for staff, then it is difficult to see how schools can devote their limited resources to making the improvements outlined.

A separate area of concern is that of the commissioned evidence review of what works to address student behaviours by the Telethon Kids Institute, a medical centre incorporating medical professionals, but there is no evidence on their website of any educational expertise. The results of their engagement appear to provide nothing new to the policy except some changes to suspension practice. Looking at their report would be of interest to assess where the department is looking to head with new approaches.

At a time when the state government is under financial pressure from the loss of income and other priorities during the covid crises, it is difficult to see how any new money can be allocated to this strategy when all existing areas and programs are under pressure to economise, meaning that any reallocation of funds is unlikely. This means that the strategy is a nice sounding document to appease stakeholders, without the specifics of anything being done other than a change to suspension rules. It’s all a bit too political and bureaucratic to suggest any significant change.
John Gore

John Gore