Opinion: Suspension Ban Offers Chance to Discipline Better

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Hallway at Icahn Charter School 7 in the Bronx.

It's not typical to see droves of New York City teachers attending a Department of Education hearing on a hot night in the middle of August. But that's exactly what happened this week when teachers showed up to support Mayor Bill de Blasio's newly announced ban of suspensions for kindergarten, first and second grade students.

Many teachers applaud this proposal because it catches up to the reality that we've known for some time. Taking our youngest students out of school in response to discipline issues doesn’t improve their behavior. In fact, it often has the opposite effect.

Suspensions are undoubtedly a quick way to achieve one goal: removing a disruptive and distracting student for a day or two allows learning to proceed for the other students.  

But, in the long-term, little is achieved. That student eventually must return to the classroom, and the problematic behavior is guaranteed to resume. And that's the fundamental problem with suspensions. They don’t teach children that their actions are inappropriate and must change. They don’t provide teachers with any insight into why a student is acting out. They don't solve the problem.

As a teacher and parent, I've seen that many students struggling with discipline issues have learning difficulties. To a lot of these children, a suspension can seem like a welcomed escape, a way out of struggling with class work for a few days. I’ve seen children try to get suspended because of this.

That’s why I’ve try to keep my students from getting suspended as much as I possibly can.

I’ve taken my lunch out of the teachers’ lounge and into the cafeteria to sit with my students and get to know them better. I’ve come into work early to talk to them and observe them, to see if they have a different way of learning.

When it’s become clear that a student doesn’t understand my class material, I’ve tutored them during their free periods or after school. I recently took this approach with one of my fourth graders who clearly was frustrated by his inability to grasp the lessons. Working with him one-on-one, I could see the light flicker on when he finally got it — and that made all the difference. His emotional outbursts stopped.

While I’ve taken it upon myself to provide extra services to students who need them, it shouldn’t be up to individual teachers. Schools need to better support teachers facing behavior problems in the classroom. 

Along with offering professional development so that teachers know how to respond to misbehaving students, schools need to encourage teachers to connect with these kids. Schools must help teachers develop individualized curriculum and programs for struggling students. They also should have materials prepared for any student who is taken out of the classroom for disciplinary reasons.

Parents need to step up, too. As a mother to a son who has faced behavior issues, I see how important it is for the parents to help as well. When my son faced disciplinary actions, I helped him to understand why, and worked with him to change his behavior. I’ve also connected with his teachers to understand where my son is struggling so that I can supplement his classwork.

The job of both a parent and teacher is to show the children under your charge the right thing to do, when to do it and what to do if it goes wrong. That’s why, in lieu of suspensions, teachers and parents must seize the opportunity to make sure their child has every tool to succeed.