Warren Township administrators are taking a new approach to discipline — often forgoing traditional punishments, such as suspensions, in favor of interventions that better support the children who have gotten into trouble.
It’s called “positive discipline,” and it takes into account that traumatic events, such as a parent in jail, the loss of a family member, or homelessness, may be at the root of a child’s misbehavior. In those cases, experts say making a home visit or providing mentoring — paired with a consequence such as detention — can be more beneficial than forcing a student, who may need help, out of school.
“Children have problems at school because of things that have happened in their background,” JauNae Hanger, president of the Children’s Policy and Law Initiative of Indiana. said. “As educators we’ve got to be cognizant of that.”
The result of these more mindful discipline policies: better care for students, and fewer students missing class.
This softer approach to discipline is gaining traction throughout the United States, particularly as schools confront high suspension and expulsion rates that have been found to unfairly target students of color.
Indiana in particular has grappled with such disproportionately harsh discipline for black students. Now, the state is establishing guidelines for educators to use this new approach in their own classrooms.
“Even one detention in the ninth grade can increase the risk of a child going into the juvenile justice system,” Hanger said. “School discipline data suggests that we do have a problem. It’s a statewide problem.”
Through a new state law passed this year, the Indiana Department of Education is developing a best practice model for districts like Warren Township that are interested in implementing “positive discipline,” which seeks to teach rather than to punish.
The model will provide ways to reduce out-of-school suspension and inequities in discipline, to limit referrals to law enforcement or arrests on school grounds, and to draft or strengthen policies that address issues of bullying on school property.
Schools are not required to adopt the best practice model, nor are they required to reduce their suspensions and expulsions, but the state must provide information and support to districts upon request.
“Operating in the mode of punishment without supports is not productive for families or kids,” said James Taylor, Warren Township’s director of student services. “We want to support families as much as we can because we’re the first line of defense before the juvenile system.”
Warren Township is one of seven Indiana districts that participated in specialized training last year to learn how to respond to misbehavior in a way that considers what’s happening in a student’s life outside of the classroom. Children in poverty are more likely than their peers to experience traumatic events.
The training is hosted by the Children’s Policy and Law Initiative of Indiana, which is known for its efforts around reforming laws, policies, and practices to keep children in school and out of the criminal justice system. Training comprises a two-day summit and four one-day sessions during the course of a year.
Each session is designed for a different group of school employees, including administrators, teachers, and school resource officers. The final session brings everyone together for cross-disciplinary training, team building, and strategic planning.
Jim Sporleder is a trauma-informed coach who helps lead positive discipline training sessions across the U.S., including Indiana. He has seen how adopting a different mindset on discipline can be difficult: “It’s going against tradition,” Sporleder said. “It’s going against how we were raised.”
That was an early challenge for Warren Township schools. The strategy requires “a paradigm shift,” Taylor said.
“Everybody has to be on board, but everybody’s not always on board,” he said. “It’s tough to get people out of that mindset that this kid really painted a black eye for our school, and how do we move past the pain and the hurt of the situation when it happens?”
At Warren Central High School, 584 out of 3,710 students received out-of-school suspensions before the district began taking this new approach in 2016-17. But last year, when the district started the positive discipline training, the number of out-of-school suspensions decreased by more than 15 percent, according to state data.
Warren Township now outlines its approach to positive discipline in its student handbook, which defines discipline on the cover as, “instruction that corrects, molds, or perfects character and develops self-control.”
At the Children’s Policy and Law Initiative of Indiana, Hanger said she uses schools’ discipline data to identify schools with a high rate of suspensions and where leaders are willing to address the issue. She and her team are still collecting data, but they believe suspensions will go down within the first year of training.
Suspensions have long been a problem in Indiana: During the 2012-13 school year, one in 10 Indiana students were suspended. For black students, the number was even greater — one in five.
However, some groups that represent educators have had concerns about how to roll out this approach effectively. Tim McRoberts, associate executive director of the Indiana Association of School Principals, said he doesn’t want schools to restrict how teachers can discipline students. Teachers still need to have a full range of options when dealing with incidents.
Still, he said he supports keeping students in school.
Sporleder, the trainer, said that in order for a shift toward positive discipline to work, the entire school has to change the way it looks at all students.
“Some people separate out who’s trauma and who’s not,” Sporleder said. “We can’t do that because we don’t know. Your most compliant student in classroom could be most traumatized. Trauma isn’t a checklist. It’s who you are.”