Welcome Back! — Helping Students Return After Suspension

-by Krista Taylor

Corey was returning to school after a three-day suspension. He had missed three days of instruction, was angry with his teachers for issuing the consequence, and was embarrassed by the problem that had occurred in front of his peers. Though this situation is far from a set-up for success, how he walks through the door of the classroom on that first day back will impact the rest of his school year. Too often, as teachers and administrators, we miss this critical moment for connection and problem-solving

In all school settings, student misbehavior – breaking the rules – is a daily occurrence. This runs the gamut from minor infractions such as dress code violations, chewing gum and off-task talking to more major incidents like disrespectful communication and verbal or physical conflict.

 I am often asked, “Why do they [students] behave like that?!” My answer is always, “Because it’s their job.” Or as Jack phrases it, “because they are adolescenting.”

What we both mean by these comments is that they are working it out – who they are, how they fit, what they believe in . . . and they are discovering the boundaries of what is acceptable in a variety of situations and with a variety of people. This is their work, and in the process of this work, they must successmake mistakes, for that is how learning occurs. For some, this learning comes harder than it does for others; their mistakes are bigger.

School is both a relatively safe environment in which to make these mistakes, as well as a place so full of rules that it is easy to find ways to break them. There are few other environments that have so many restrictions on behavior – no talking while you are working, restroom breaks are limited and only allowable with permission, lateness of even just a few seconds comes with a consequence, food consumption is limited to specific times and locations, etc. Where do we ever see adult environments that mirror this level of rigid expectation? Prison? I don’t mean this as a critique of schools – it is difficult, if not impossible, to manage a large group of adolescents in the absence of an abundance of rules – however this also creates a near-perfect storm: individuals hell-bent on boundary-pushing in a setting with a tremendous amount of boundaries!

So our adolescents, in the process of growing up, break our rules – in small ways and in large ones, and as their guides, we are charged with addressing and correcting their misbehavior. This runs the gamut from simply redirecting behavior to suspending a child from school.

While suspension should always be a weighty decision – there are few educational messages as strong as “You can’t be in my classroom right now” – it can be a powerful tool that allows for a cooling-off period, a space in which a student can regroup and school staff can consider how to best address the situation.

But the removal from school is just the beginning of the process, and, by my measure, it is not the most important component of the school response. Rather, what takes place when the student returns to school is the most critical factor.

Put yourself in the shoes of a teenager and consider this scenario:

You have made a mistake – a pretty big one. You have missed several days of school – and therefore have missed out on both the academic instruction and the social dynamic that has taken place in your absence. It is likely that your peers have some awareness of the situation and why you haven’t been at school. Your teachers or administrators have been in touch with your parents, who are pretty upset with you. Additionally, you probably feel, rationally or irrationally, that you have been mistreated. You are embarrassed, angry, and anxious, and now you have to return to school and face your peers, teachers, and administrators once more.

This is not a good set-up in which to have a fresh start, and yet a fresh start is exactly what we are hoping our students will experience.

At Gamble, we have established a Re-Entry Conference procedure to help ease the transition back to the classroom after a removal from school. It is intentionally a formal, and formulaic, process in an attempt to simultaneously address the misbehavior and set the student up for future success. This is a tricky tightrope to walk. To assist us in doing that successfully and efficiently, we use a structured form to guide the process. That form is linked here, and the accompanying process is outlined below. Each section correlates, in order, to a numbered step on the form.

The Goal

“To assist the student in smoothly returning to the school setting by reviewing the problem behavior, re-teaching expectations, and identifying any necessary supports”

This goal statement was a recent addition to the form. We included it at the top of the form because sometimes we get confused about what the goal of the conference is, and become overly caught up in discussing all the things the child had done wrong. This adds insult to injury and runs counter to the purpose of the conference. The reading of a goal statement is an important reminder that helps everyone to remain on track.

Strengths of the Student

This is perhaps the most important piece of the meeting. It is important for everyone in the room to remember what the student does well before moving on to the mistakes the student has made. The words that are shared in these moments establish a possibility to be lived into, and reinforce the inherent worth of the child.

This risk here, however, is in what I call the “Yeah, but . . . phenomenon.” The temptation to follow a compliment with a related criticism can be so strong. I recently had to quite literally bite my tongue when I realized that I was falling prey to this very thing. I was sitting in a re-entry conference with Lashawnda and her mother. Lashawnda had been removed from school for bullying. Her actions matched all 3 bullying criteria: continued over time, included a power imbalance, and demonstrated the intent to harm. This behavior was shocking coming from this particular student, and we sent the appropriately strong message that it would not be tolerated and that she couldn’t be part of our school community until she had a problem-solving conversation with her teachers and her parent.

As always, we began the meeting by describing her strengths. Her mother had tears running down her face as I described the powerful and positive leadership qualities that Lashawnda possesses. Midway through a sentence that sounded like, “Lashawnda has such tremendous gifts as a leader,” I realized that my next words were about to be, “which is why I am so very disappointed by the choices she has recently made.” I caught myself mere milliseconds before having these words tumble out of my mouth. I did need to address the behavior, but not yet, and not at the expense of undermining her strengths. The moment that I link her leadership strengths with the problem behavior, I inadvertently remove all the power from the positive feedback. I basically give her the messCoach Reed on positive feedbackage, “Well, not really,” and what she will remember is the criticism and not the compliment. This is true in teaching, in coaching, and in parenting. Reed Maltbie describes it thusly in his blog on coaching young people. (You can read more of his thoughts at www.coachreed.com)

Describing a student’s strengths may be the most important part of the meeting; don’t dilute it’s power by adding a “yeah, but . . . “

School Concerns

Once every person at the table has identified some of the student’s strengths, the meeting facilitator transitions to the second step of the process – describing why the student was removed from school.

NOW it’s time to talk about the problem behavior.   Remember that this is a re-teach moment, not a “bring’em down” moment. Be careful of double jeopardy; the consequence has already been served.

Because Gamble is a team-based school, re-entry conferences tend to include many staff people – often an entire teaching team as well as an administrator. This is important to ensure a singular voice and clear and consistent communication, but it risks making the student feel teamed-up on. Resist the urge to pile on a lengthy list of infractions, or having multiple adults provide essentially the same negative message. Choose words carefully, focus on the impact of the misbehavior and on teaching how the situation could have been handled better.

Keep in mind that the student does not have to agree with you in order for your point to be heard. You are not obligated to convince the student that the behavior was a serious problem. It is, of course, ideal if the student is able to take responsibility for the situation and seek to make amends; however this does not always occur.   Trying to force the issue is akin to trying to make a finicky toddler eat a disliked food. All you will wind up doing is engaging in an unwinnable control battle, and while it can be tempting to belabor your point until a student appears to agree with you, this is similar to obligating students to apologize. They will do it if they sense it is required, but that does not make it genuine or valuable.

Remember the goal of the conference is to help the child return to school – creating a deeper divide is counteractive to your purpose. Speak your truth. The student does not have to share in it for your words to be impactful.  As with all forms of education, you are planting seeds. Even if those seeds don’t find immediate purchase, trust that they have been received and will, at the least, lay the groundwork for future growth.

Parent Concerns

Allow the parent(s) to share any concerns they might have. Be prepared that this might include a critique of how school staff handled the situation. Fight against the natural inclination to be defensive. You’ve had your turn. Offer clarification when warranted, but just as you and the student do not need to agree on an interpretation of the situation, neither do you and the parent.

It is also possible that the parent will share the same concerns as school staff. Here, too, it is important to not revisit school concerns and “gang up on” the student. Allow the parents’ concerns to stand separately.

Student Concerns

This is the student’s turn to speak. Although it is where you hope to hear the student take responsibility for the misbehavior, this may or may not occur. Depending on the student’s response, the same potential pitfalls exist that arise during the parent concern part of the meeting. Often students do not choose to express any concerns. Encourage them to contribute – this is a potential moment of self-advocacy, and students’ comments may lead to the best problem-solving strategies, as there is no one at the table who has better insight into the situation than the student himself.

 Action Plan

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The next part of the meeting is spent looking at what each party can do differently to help the student to make better choices going forward.

The order remains the same: first school staff identifies available supports from which the student might benefit, and explores how to put them in place; then the parent identifies ways in which they can assist the student in making improvements, and lastly the student is asked to provide strategies she or he can use to prevent the same situation from occurring again.

Bringing it all together

The final element of the conference brings the conversation full-circle. The form states, “Summarize action plan and strengths of the student in a way that encourages the student to succeed moving forward.” It provides for a revisiting of the student’s strengths coupled with the identified action plan to allow for an optimistic vision of the student’s success in the future.

For Corey, this meeting was revealing. During the conversation, Corey’s mom noted that she needed to be more involved in her son’s schooling, Corey shared that he often felt targeted for his behaviors, and his teachers set up a process where Corey identified a trusted adult to whom he could turn to for assistance when he had behaved inappropriately.

At the end of this discussion, Corey, his mother, and school staff were all on the same page, and all parties were ready for him to return to the classroom in a positive manner.

The Reality

Re-entry conferences are not a magic elixir, and, like most things, they take time and effort. Behavioral change is a lengthy process, especially for our neediest students. These re-entry conferences are a way to heal the rift that occurred with the misbehavior and the ensuing consequence, help the student transition successfully back into the classroom community, and provide an opportunity to reteach the correct behavior and the classroom expectations. It’s not an easy process, but it is powerful and worth the time and energy it entails.