A Data-Driven Approach Turns School Discipline Around - ASCD
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August 22, 2019

A Data-Driven Approach Turns School Discipline Around

When I joined Lowery Middle School as an assistant principal in 2015, we had a lot of challenges involving discipline. The school is in a small pocket of poverty in an affluent suburban district, separated geographically from most schools in the district by the Mississippi River. In our school, 95 percent of the students are economically disadvantaged. Many struggled to focus and behave properly, and our teachers and leaders, in turn, struggled with how to respond. During the 2015–16 school year, we wrote more than 1,000 discipline referrals and had 450 suspensions and 30 expulsions. We also lost 13 of 18 core teachers.

We knew we had to improve, so we dug into data to decide where to begin. A 2018 study by Tulane University's Education Research Alliance for New Orleans shows that a data-driven approach to behavior management can reduce the number of suspensions per student by 26 to 72 percent and the number of suspension days by at least 52 percent. Research also shows that positive school climates and improved school discipline policies and practices are crucial steps to raising academic achievement (PDF) and supporting student success.

We applied these and other research-based practices to improve student and adult behavior and our school culture. As a result, we reduced suspensions by 40 percent between the 2015–16 school year and the 2017–18 school year, and reduced expulsions and teacher turnover by more than 60 percent. From 2017 to 2018, our school's state-issued letter grade went from an F to a D. In 2018, we received a B for our students' growth throughout the school year.

In this article, I want to share a few practices that bolstered this measured improvement:

Proactively Address Classroom Management and Student Behavior

More than 30 years of research indicates that classroom management affects student achievement, so our instructional leadership team—including myself, mentor teachers, a master teacher, and administrators—provided teachers with weekly trainings during their planning periods to improve their classroom management techniques. We used a variety of resources, such as the "No Nonsense Nurturing Model" and the "Teach Like a Champion" initiative. We also implemented a schoolwide culture initiative using Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS) and created behavioral systems and structures—including data tracking and student incentives—to help students grow socially and academically.

Track and Analyze Behavior Data

The instructional leadership team worked with teachers to determine the most important student behaviors to watch. Teachers broke into groups and identified six positive behaviors (prepared, responsible, respectful, teamwork, engagement, perseverance) and three negative behaviors (dress code infraction, tardiness, regular infraction for general misbehavior) to track, as well as descriptions of what these behaviors look like in the classroom.

Teachers also began weekly professional learning community (PLC) meetings to support and strengthen PBIS implementation by grade level. During the PLC meetings, the teachers examine behavior data by teacher, by class, by grade level, for the whole school, and for individual students.

To make it easier to track and share real-time data, the school uses an online behavior management system called Kickboard, which allows teachers to track the nine targeted behaviors with ease. Leaders regularly use this data in conjunction with classroom observations to provide feedback and coaching.

Recognize Students for Positive Choices

Research by Barbara L. Fredrickson suggests that a ratio of three positive emotions for every negative emotion typically serves as the tipping point at which an individual will flourish rather than languish. We set a schoolwide goal for a 4:1 positivity ratio. This gets adults out of the habit of looking for what's wrong and helps us to be more intentional about "catching" students doing the right things.

As part of the PBIS program, educators teach behavioral expectations to their students in the same manner as any core curriculum subject. Teachers deliver precise directions for behavior expectations and model those behaviors. When students meet an expectation, teachers provide reinforcement. We acknowledge students for making positive behavior choices both individually and through schoolwide recognition programs such as Paw Bucks, which students can cash in for free dress days or school events. Initially, we focused on behaviors such as being on time, meeting the dress code, and being respectful. Now we've moved on to academic behaviors such as showing perseverance or taking on extra homework.

The key is to intentionally show students how making the right choices affects them. When they receive Paw Bucks, they are making good behavior choices. When they consistently make good choices, they are able to meet more of their academic goals. When they consistently meet academic goals, they have a better chance of pursuing a career of their choice and achieving their long-term goals.

Change Mindsets

As we progressed, we wanted to know if suspensions and expulsions were affecting a large or small number of students. When we examined our data in the Kickboard system, we saw that 90 percent of students were behaviorally successful; nevertheless, some were on the verge of expulsion. Though our efforts with classroom management, PBIS, and the positivity ratio made the school a better place for most students, we decided to change some policies to better meet all students' needs.

For decades, research has shown that when parents are more engaged and involved, kids often do better academically and socially. So, we implemented a "reverse suspension" program. When a student is about to be suspended for the third time, we give parents the option to come to school with their child for a day.

In addition to reducing suspensions, this program broke down barriers between the school and community. For years, many community members had a negative perception of our school and teachers. But when parents saw what was happening in our classrooms, they saw teachers who were working hard to help students excel. Students' perception of the school overall also improved.

As my school's experience shows, to achieve a positive school culture in a high-needs school, there must be an administrator who owns it. Carve out time for it, make it systemic, and hire people who believe in it. Be proactive and persistent and celebrate successes along the way. The results will follow.

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