In the world of education, things often still operate from a top-down hierarchy. District leaders respond to state or federal mandates, and in turn direct school leaders to change. School leaders then, in turn, direct teachers to change. Yet change is indeed difficult, especially when it comes to discipline reform.

Discipline is something that teachers take personally, and rightfully so. It’s their daily life in the classroom that’s at stake, and so they need the proper support and guidance to implement new approaches successfully. More often than not, time and funding are limited, and instead teachers are left feeling as if nothing has really changed. It’s “students cannot be punished” one day or “this new program too shall pass” the next. It’s easy for them to feel like the latest buzz words are being done to them and not with them.

As an administrator, the work is messy. Educators tend to fall back into their comfort zones when the classroom door is closed or when a student is referred to the office, and even the most well-intended ideas can fall to the wayside. Principals struggle to balance the needs of students, staff members, and parents. So administrators try to maintain control and order in the school while also making sure their suspension and attendance data improve as expected. And more often than not, one of these aims falls short.

Discipline reform also comes up short when zero tolerance and punitive, reactive measures are the norm. It likewise suffers when leaders do not take the time and invest in their staff members to help them understand the “why/what/how” and develop the needed skills to implement and reframe their approaches and beliefs. Instead, the pendulum swings from the zero tolerance extreme to the other side where teachers feel like nothing happens to the offenders (who are allowed to continue to disrupt their class at the expense of the “good students”).

Neither of these approaches work to change or really improve behavior for all students. Instead, these lenses and views are dangerous. They can encourage exclusionary practices and disproportionate outcomes which further foster a school climate of “us vs. them.” And that’s when many students do not feel as if they are wanted or welcomed.

So if school is a place that a student does not want to be — or where a student does feel they are allowed to be — then it should be no surprise that attendance will dramatically suffer as well. As The 74 Million in How Harsh Discipline and Chronic Absenteeism Could Be About to Collide Under the Every Student Succeeds Act note, zero tolerance and exclusionary practices accelerate chronic absenteeism for many of our students.

But it does not have to be that way. And with the growing effort to combat chronic absenteeism more than ever, it cannot be.

Instead, you can indeed have a school climate where there are clear expectations and rules in place. And at the same time, this can also be a place where students are given the instructional help they need to be successful in meeting those expectations. They can likewise be given encouragement, strategic support, and positive reinforcement so they too feel like schooling is being done with them and not to them.

So, where does one start? Consider some of these key, but often overlooked, foundational pieces:

  • First and foremost, is student learning — for all students — our ultimate goal?
  • Are our classrooms culturally responsive?
  • Do we actively seek to carry out engaging lessons (this is often the best classroom management tool)?
  • Do we have clearly defined expectations for behaviors?
  • Do staff members, students, and parents know these expectations?
  • Do staff members explicitly teach, model, authentically re-teach, and reinforce expectations?
  • Do we have a framework in place to teach the “what” (PBIS) and the “how” (SEL)?
  • Do our actions match our words?
  • Do we have proven, simple strategies to connect and build meaningful relationships with our students?
  • Do staff members know what behaviors they are expected to handle?
  • Do staff members know how? Do they have the skills to do so?
  • If not, what professional learning and on-going support, monitoring, and feedback is needed?
  • Do staff members know what behaviors are to be referred to the office or support personnel?
  • As administrators, do we take the time when handling discipline to also teach and connect?
  • Are we reactive or proactive in how we respond?
  • Do we make an effort to limit subjectivity and inconsistency in discipline decisions?
  • How do we communicate with students and parents when behaviors are consistently met?
  • How do we identify, intervene, and support students well before an office referral is merited?
  • Are staff members able to determine the function or motivation behind the behaviors and help the student’s needs be met in a more appropriate manner?
  • How do we help students repair or restore any “damages”?
  • Do we provide opportunities for students to make academic progress while disciplined?
  • Do we provide opportunities for students to review expectations while disciplined?
  • When a suspension does occur, how we do help the student successfully return and be successful going forward?
  • What type of behavior data (attendance, discipline, academic indicators, surveys, etc.) can we regularly review to identify and respond to trends and problem solve around root causes?
  • Do we take time to identify, celebrate, and attempt to replicate what is working?
  • Do we have and honor a meaningful feedback loop for staff members, students, and parents?

While this list may seem long, in reality, these are items that most educators are well-aware of. To some extent, these things may be happening already in their district or building. The challenge is for our leaders to take the time to help intentionally communicate, align efforts, and drive this work with the well-being of all students in mind. Effective tools like Hero — that empower school-wide engagement — will bridge the “us vs. them” divides and make the work much, much easier. Ultimately, the time and commitment invested on the front end will reap far more of a return on your investment. And you will tremendously improve school climates and assure more equitable student outcomes — much more than many current approaches are dictating.