Disciplined and Disconnected
The Experience of Exclusionary Discipline in Minnesota and the Promise of Non-Exclusionary Alternatives
Removing a student from class or the school building as a consequence for misconduct is a discipline approach known as “exclusionary discipline.” While exclusion is federally mandated for dangerous behaviors such as violence, weapons possession, or drug possession, a significant portion of school removals nationally are for non-dangerous rules violations, such as tardiness, or behaviors that can be interpreted subjectively, such as defiance or disrespect. Research shows that suspending and expelling students does not help students improve behavior, address underlying causes of resistant behavior, or make schools safer. In fact, exclusionary discipline is associated with an array of negative outcomes for young people, including:
- Worse academic performance
- Lower levels of school engagement
- Greater chance of leaving school before graduating
- Increased likelihood of future involvement with the criminal justice system
- Higher levels of school violence and antisocial behavior
Moreover, national discipline data consistently shows that these punishments are disproportionately levied at students of color and students with disabilities.
Given this context, the Center for Promise in partnership with the Minnesota Alliance With Youth sought to better understand the school discipline experiences of young people in Minnesota that tell the story behind the national education data and recent headlines.
The Center for Promise conducted group interviews with a total of 38 middle and high school students in three Minnesota communities: Minneapolis, St. Paul, and Chicago. All participants had firsthand experience with exclusionary discipline. Participants were asked to speak about their experiences with school discipline, including, but not limited to, what led to the incident, who was involved in the resolution process, and their subsequent experiences in school. Transcripts from the group interviews were then systematically analyzed.
Across all group interviews, young people explained how their experiences with disciplinary interventions led them to disconnect from school. Specifically, interventions often did not address the root causes of their behavior, had the effect of making them feel unvalued and unwelcome, and disrupted their learning. Participants expressed a desire to engage in school and succeed, but overwhelmingly found that their schools’ disciplinary practices inhibited their ability to do so.
Several themes emerged from this analysis:
Root causes of behavior must be explored and addressed. While all misconduct, especially dangerous behaviors, must be responded to, young people’s responses indicate that the root causes are not often examined and managed. The young people expressed a desire to share their perspectives and explain their behavior, but they often felt they were not given the chance. Not considering the full context of student behavior—or having an inclusive process that allows students to appeal an exclusionary discipline decision—can leave students feeling wrongfully penalized and ignored.
Exclusion interrupts learning. Youth explained that being taken out of class makes it harder for them to succeed academically, as they are not given the opportunity to make academic progress while excluded. For these young people, exclusionary discipline impedes opportunities to learn, threatening their connection to their school and educational experience.
Students need to feel valued, welcome, and connected. Young people discussed feeling undervalued at school, noting that racism and other forms of negative labeling (being known as a “troublemaker”) from school personnel were often drivers of treatment that led to those feelings. Feeling undervalued and unwelcome can strain young people’s relationships with school personnel, a profound form of disconnection from school.
Moving Away from Exclusion
While non-exclusionary practices have increased in popularity, little is known about how school leaders experience, understand, and implement them. To gain further insight into these practices, the Center for Promise conducted key informant interviews with Minnesota school administrators implementing non-exclusionary practices at their schools. The administrators discussed the mindsets that orient their schools’ approaches to discipline, the disciplinary practices they use and how they implement them, and any challenges they face.
When discussing what schools can do differently, the administrators emphasized four ideas:
- Make student learning the ultimate goal. One of the foundational mindsets they spoke about is that disciplinary interventions should always support and be driven by student learning. As a result, this school leader considered disciplinary interventions based on the goal of keeping students connected to school.
- Interpret student behavior as a communication of needs. Students can experience a great deal of adversity in their lives, and this impacts their behavior. Seeing behavior through a trauma-informed lens is pivotal in addressing some of the needs that young people bring to school.
- Build trusting relationships. When students feel safe and trusted by staff, they can be open about what they are experiencing and where they need support. Positive relationships allow school staff to meet the individual needs of students and contribute to a climate of care and compassion throughout the whole school.
- Share power. Implementing non-exclusionary practices often involves establishing shared power between members of the school community, especially students. This represents a major break from the traditional discipline approach, where adults in general and specific administrators dominate the discipline process.
The administrators also offered insights about how to implement these changes. They emphasized the need for school-wide professional learning that engages experts in the non-exclusionary practices being implemented, intentionally engaging skeptics in efforts to promote full buy-in among staff, engaging students as leaders in implementing new practices, and build capacity by learning from and sharing promising practices.
This can ultimately shape how connected young people feel to school, the adults in school, and to their education overall. Existing research and insights from Minnesota youth experiencing exclusionary discipline and school leaders implementing non-exclusionary practices present a number of implications for policy and practice.
Listen to young people. Young people should be given the opportunity to contribute to conversations about policies, programs, and interventions that will impact their lives and educational experiences, including those on exclusionary discipline.
Invest in research to determine effective non-exclusionary discipline practices. Improving discipline practices requires ongoing work and evaluation. As promising, non-exclusionary practices increase in popularity, more research is needed to determine which elements of each approach are most effective and how these approaches to discipline impact a young person’s ability to succeed in school and in life.
Strengthen relationships among school personnel, students, and families. Understanding who a young person is and their lived experience can offer tremendous insight into their behavior. Similarly, strengthening relationships between the school and adults at home can help all adults who have a role in a young person’s life better understand when challenges arise and provide appropriate supports.
Allow disciplinary action to provide an opportunity for conversation about educational options. In this study, students did not always understand why they were being disciplined; some did not even realize they were being disciplined.
Provide opportunities for students to make academic progress while disciplined. Districts and schools adjusting their discipline practices should prioritize students’ ability to make academic progress during their discipline intervention. For example, offering in-school instead of out-of-school suspension may allow young people to stay on-track with their classes and maintain important school-based connections in ways that are more difficult if they are removed from the school building entirely.
Limit subjectivity and inconsistency in discipline decisions. Without consistency, students lack clear expectations about how to act in school. Providing guidance and professional development to school personnel at all levels will help ensure that there is a clear understanding of the school and district’s discipline rules that school personnel should follow when making discipline decisions.
Ensure that students know school rules and their own rights. It is important that all young people know their schools’ discipline policies and their rights. Having full information can limit the frustration often felt by students and ensure they have what they need to properly advocate for themselves.
Create learning communities for educators and school leaders to discuss effective strategies for lowering the rate of school exclusion. School and district leaders need opportunities to learn from one another. This deeper understanding can lead other schools to adopt changes to their policies and practices and provide the state with better insight into promising practices.
Support district exploration of non-exclusionary discipline practices and provide dedicated, sustainable resources for professional development. Scarce resources and limited time are two impediments to schools implementing non-exclusionary discipline practices.
Provide guidance documents and model policies for local adoption. Within the bounds of the current law, there is an opportunity for the state to improve consistency in how disciplinary decisions are determined.
Ensure transparency by expanding publicly available discipline data. States must make school and district level student discipline data, disaggregated by race, ethnicity and socioeconomic status, readily available to the general public. Misconceptions about the reasons for exclusions are prevalent in popular discourse. Equipping the public with data on an annual basis will help ensure transparency statewide.
Join the Conversation
Please join us in sharing and amplifying the findings of the report using the hashtag #ExclusionaryDiscipline and download the social media toolkit with shareable graphics.
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Disciplined and Disconnected was co-authored by Elizabeth Pufall Jones, Ph.D., Max Margolius, Miriam Rollock, Catalina Tang Yan, Marissa L. Cole, and Jonathan F. Zaff, Ph.D. at the Center for Promise. This research is part of GradNation State Activation, an initiative of the GradNation campaign to raise high school graduation rates to 90 percent. The Minnesota Alliance With Youth, a youth development advocacy organization, is a grantee of this national effort. Pearson is the sole sponsor of this study and its dissemination.
The 5 Promises
The 5 Promises represent conditions children need to achieve adult success. The collective work of the Alliance involves keeping these promises to America’s youth. This article relates to the promises highlighted below: