The Consequences of Suspension and What Schools Can Do Instead

Nov 17, 2023
Pexels rdne stock project 8419181

Student misbehavior can be extremely disruptive to learning. It causes teachers and administrators stress and costs classmates the valuable instructional time that the teacher has to instead spend on addressing behavior issues. One disciplinary action that is often used to punish behavior problems is out-of-school suspension.

According to some estimates, every year, nearly three million students face out-of-school suspension. Suspension affects minorities and students with disabilities at a higher rate than their peers. The June 2021 edition of the U.S. Department of Education (ED) report on exclusionary discipline from the 2017–18 Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC) survey showed: “In 2017–18, Black students received one or more in-school suspensions (31.4%) and one or more out-of-school suspensions (38.2%) at rates that were more than twice their share of total student enrollment (15.1%).” Additionally, the report stated: “Students with disabilities served under IDEA represented 13.2% of total student enrollment but received 20.5% of one or more in-school suspensions and 24.5% of one or more out-of-school suspensions.”

One of the issues with out-of-school suspension is that it is a disciplinary action that has academic implications. In fact, a 2021 study by the American Institutes for Research found that in-school and out-of-school suspensions not only are ineffective for students in middle and high school but also have negative effects on academic outcomes, attendance, and future behavior.

Here is a closer look at some of the unintended consequences of suspension:

1. Lack of trust

Suspension can be perceived by students as a rejection, and this can lead to a lack of trust between students and their teachers. When students lose trust, they lose the benefits of forming the relationships that help them feel connected to their teachers and administrators.

2. Loss of learning and sinking grades

Students lose valuable instruction and learning time whenever they are taken out to the classroom, and many schools have a no-makeup policy for work missed because of suspension. This time adds up quickly, and it’s not uncommon for students’ grades to drop as a result. Research has shown that when it comes to education, attendance is essential to success, so pulling students out of class when there could be other options seems like a waste of valuable instructional time.

3. Parent inconvenience

When students, especially younger ones, are suspended from school, parents and caregivers are left to figure out what to do with their child for the day. This may mean missing work, paying for unexpected childcare, or even leaving a young child home alone if there isn’t another option. For many families, this is an additional stress they can’t afford.

4. Achievement gap increases

Because minority and special education students are disproportionately affected by suspension, they are exposed to the academic downside at a higher rate as well. Students who get suspended frequently are less likely to pass classes and state assessments, and this may also impact graduation rates.

It’s clear from the data that suspension may not be an effective way to discipline students, but what is the answer? Teachers and administrators can’t be expected to sacrifice the learning of the other students in the classroom because of a student’s misbehavior, and students need to understand that there are consequences for their actions.

Many schools are taking on the challenge of finding alternative ways to manage behavior.

1. Circle discussions

Some schools are using restorative justice practices as an alternate to suspensions. Circle discussions are a more relational approach to addressing student behavior, and they have experienced drops in their suspension rates since implementation. These discussions are designed to help provide all parties involved with a sense of equality. It’s important that everyone has a chance to speak and everyone has a chance to listen so that there is a mutual understanding.

2. Early-warning indicators

Dedicated holistic child development programs and a positive school culture can make it so that all students have the opportunity to feel seen and heard and capable of coping and communicating negative feelings to hopefully minimize disruptions to their learning and reduce chronic stress. Research consistently finds that students participating in such programs showed improved classroom behavior, an increased ability to manage stress and depression, and better attitudes about themselves, others, and school.

3. Support programs

Some schools are implementing programs like the Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) framework funded by ED to improve school environments. PBIS supports appropriate behavior, and studies have seen positive effects on the students.

4. Access to mental health services

Mental health and behavioral health services are critical to supporting and developing the whole learner, as well as creating a safe, supportive environment where learning can occur. According to the National Association of School Psychologists, mental health services are a growing and unmet need among children and youth, and mentally healthy children are more successful in school and life. In October 2022, ED announced two grant programs to provide funding to schools to increase the number of credentialed school-based mental health professionals and support districts in hiring additional school-based mental health service providers in high-need districts by boosting the mental health profession pipeline.

5. Peer mediation/mentoring

In some situations, other students are better at rectifying behavior incidents than adults. Consider establishing a peer-mediation program or a student-led court process for certain offenses. If older students are available, pair offenders with one for mentoring. On the flip side, assigning offenders to help a younger student with tutoring has shown to be a positive intervention as well.

6. Parent partnering

Students are more likely to be successful when they feel connected, particularly when they feel positively connected to their family. Parents and caregivers can play an important role in successfully using alternatives to suspension. Co-learning, such as having students and parents take a course together on impulse control, anger management, or drug and alcohol abuse, can create a platform for a shared conversation and consistent information between the two formative settings of home and school. 

Common language, a sense that we are working together from the same page, can support student success. Parent partnering can help build relationships between everyone involved and still drive home the point that the student’s prior behavior has been unacceptable.

These processes are making a positive impact on suspension rates, and it’s encouraging to see schools pursue them. To learn more about ways to minimize discipline issues in your school or classroom, consider these classroom management tips around building a classroom community that promotes an environment of equity and inclusion.

This post was originally published April 2018 by Alexis Brakebill and has been updated.

Get the latest education insights sent directly to your inbox

Subscribe to our Knowledge Articles