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September 1, 1998
Vol. 56
No. 1

Effective In-House Suspension

How can we modify traditional in-house suspension to be more active, supportive, and effective?

For the third time this month, Rico is attending in-house suspension. This time, he slapped a student who took his pencil. Last week, he shoved another who accidentally banged into him on the playground. Rico always seems to have a chip onhis shoulder. But his home life might account for his behavior. His dad is in jail, and his mom, who works two jobs, has little time or patience for her children. She, too, has a short fuse and often lashes out physically at Rico.
Alongside Rico is Anna. After forgetting her homework all week, she was sent to suspension. But when Anna gets home from school each day, she is responsible for taking care of her two younger siblings and for cleaning the house. By evening, her mind is usually far from her schoolwork.
Sean joins them. Sean was sent to in-house suspension for getting out of his seat and wandering around the classroom, even after three warnings. Maybe Sean can never sit still because he is trying to block out the demons. When he was 8, Sean witnessed a murder in his neighborhood. That's when he became jumpy and restless.

Reinforcing Resilience, Not Rigidity

It isn't difficult to figure out why these three students, all composites based on real students, have behavior problems in school. But that doesn't mean their behavior should be tolerated. Although we educators can do precious little to change students' out-of-school environments, we can use in-house suspension time to help them behave more responsibly. And, in the process, we can assist them in becoming more resilient to their daily pressures.
Sometimes, we do need to remove students from the classroom. In traditional in-house suspensions, they must sit down, be quiet, and work in isolation from their peers. Although this form of in-house suspension may sufficiently deter a student who misbehaves occasionally, it usually fails for students with deep-seated problems. The recidivism rate among children from dysfunctional family environments is extremely high.
Current research on protective factors for resilience suggests that a modified in-house suspension program can enable students to remain resilient through difficult times. Such a program needs to incorporate three protective factors that enhance resilience in students: a relationship with an adult who thinks they're worthwhile, sensitivity to their feelings, and a sense of power and control in their lives.
Instead of serving as sergeant at arms, the adult in charge may assume the role of a supportive resource. He or she can establish a personal connection with students, take an interest in them, express the belief that they are worthwhile, encourage them, and treat them with empathy and respect while still remaining firm. The supportive resource has two main functions: immediate intervention and long-term prevention.

Immediate Intervention

When students are first sent to in-house suspension, they are usually raging mad. I have found that most students insist they are innocent or are being treated unfairly. Arguing with them or lecturing to them is pointless. Our words will fall on ears deafened by fury or desensitized by countless other lectures. By listening to these students responsively and nonjudgmentally, and by trying to understand and reiterate their feelings, we convey the message that they matter. This does not mean that we have to agree with them, only that we respect their right to have those feelings and we value them enough to listen. For example, in Rico's case, the supportive resource might reflect, "So, you felt 'dissed' when he banged into you" or "It sounds like you must have really been insulted"; in Anna's case, "It certainly must be exhausting to do all you do" or "It's hard to remember your schoolwork when you have a lot on your mind"; and in Sean's case, "It must be frustrating not being able to sit still for long." Such responses build protective factors for resilience by establishing a relationship with the students and helping them identify and label feelings.
Once the listening process defuses their anger, we can help students feel powerful and in control of their lives. The problem-solving process is ideal for this. First, we tackle the problem that caused the in-house suspension. Students may initially pepper the conversation with excuses and attempts to blame others, but, through careful and probing guidance, they eventually will define the problem. For example, Rico might reach the conclusion, "When I feel that someone disses me, I get furious and hit. It's a problem because I could really injure someone and because I get into trouble. What can I do instead of hitting when someone really infuriates me?" Anna might realize, "I am so busy when I get home that I keep forgetting my homework and the teacher gets annoyed with me. I also fall behind in my studies. What can I do to help myself remember my homework?" Sean might find, "I have to keep moving around. It annoys the teacher and distracts other students. I keep getting in trouble and being embarrassed. How can I help myself not to disturb everyone?" By guiding students to state the problem in terms of how their behavior negatively affects others, we develop in them empathy and remorse, two essential attributes of socially responsible people.
In the next step, we help students brainstorm possible solutions. Too many students fail to take responsibility for their behavior and are quick to blame others. They assume the role of helpless victim. They feel powerless. But resilient people realize they have choices and options, regardless of what has happened to them. They feel empowered. This brainstorming process places the problem squarely in the hands of the students. No matter what has happened in the past, they learn that they are responsible for their own actions.
Rico might brainstorm alternatives to lashing out, such as telling an adult, putting his hands in his pockets if his fists get itchy, walking away, singing a song to himself—anything to cool his frustrations. Anna might tie a string around her finger or ask a friend to call her to remind her to do her homework. One activity that works beautifully involves a bit of artwork. With the help of the supportive resource, Anna might cut out a brightly colored picture, laminate it, paste it on a piece of foam, and add a Velcro strip to the back. Whenever Anna has homework, she can stick the picture on her book bag to remind her when she's at home. Sean might ask to move to the back of the room where he won't disturb anyone, have play dough in his desk to keep his hands busy, or keep a scratch pad handy so he can doodle. After brainstorming together, the supportive resource guides students to choose the best solutions. If the solutions don't work, students should feel safe to go back to their supportive resource and figure out a better one.
The beauty of immediate intervention is that responsibility is placed in the hands of students; they take ownership of the problem as well as of the solution. The modified in-house suspension can create hope and optimism in students who are typically discouraged.

Long-Term Prevention

A critical factor is to solidify, on a long-term basis, the students' relationships with their supportive resource. During this long-term prevention stage, the resource continues the relationship far beyond the in-house suspension time. After students leave suspension, the supportive resource periodically touches base with them, checking to see how they're doing, encouraging them, and redirecting them if they steer off the path. Most important, the resource maintains a connection over time, always expressing confidence in them and belief that they are worthwhile—even if they do mess up and make mistakes. By conversing with students about their interests, the resource conveys a strong message of caring.
When new problems arise, the supportive resource and the student can return to problem-solving techniques. At other times, the supportive resource may serve as the student's advocate, helping others in the school see beyond a negative label.
Around Halloween, one student mentioned to his supportive resource that he had an interest in bats. She organized a series of information sheets and puzzles about bats. His eyes lit up as he exclaimed, "You got them for me!" Their relationship was cemented. For so many students who have trouble at home, even a small gesture of interest and caring can help. Checking in with students periodically does not take much time, nor does a smile in the hall or a few minutes of chatting. And the rewards are priceless.

Encouraging Resilience

This in-house suspension model effects long-term positive changes in students with major behavior problems by building protective factors to enhance resilience. Effective in-house suspension dramatically diminishes the time and energy teachers spend dealing with major behavior problems. In addition, the number of return visits by students is reduced. Most important, with the guidance and encouragement of their supportive resource, students are empowered to make positive life changes.

Marilyn E. Gootman has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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