While detention remains a staple of student discipline across the country, many school leaders are looking at ways to modify the practice, or even replace it, with approaches that may be more effective at actually reducing bad behavior.
Classic detention, where bored students sit silently and unproductively in classrooms after school, has limited value as a disciplinary tool, says Alan Johnson, superintendent of the Woodland Hills School District near Pittsburgh.
“Detention quite literally becomes something that we can do to demonstrate that a code of conduct is being enforced,” Johnson says. “As for effectiveness, few principals have any expectation of that.”
African American and special education students faced disproportionate rates of exclusionary punishment, such as detention, according to a 2012 study—“Breaking School Rules: A Statewide Study of How School Discipline Relates to Students’ Success and Juvenile Justice Involvement.”
It followed all Texas seventh-graders in 2001, 2012 and 2013, revealing students in detention were much more likely to be held back, drop out and be involved in a crime. It also found that use of detention varied widely, even among schools with similar demographics, and that detention did not improve academic performance of students.
School leaders are finding that changing how detention works may improve outcomes—as will broader, proactive disciplinary approaches that can reveal strained relationships with teachers or identify underlying problems with students’ emotional health, academic skills and home life.
Students reflect, teachers coach
Administrators may feel they have few remedies other than detention or in-school suspension for serious infractions, such as a fight, involving student safety. And detention (or the threat of it) can change the behavior of some students for the better—as long as it is paired with care and attention.
For instance, at Flathead High School in the Kalispell Public School District in Montana, some teachers serve as “personal academic trainers” during detention. They gather students together for small study hall sessions or mentor each student separately, says Peter Fusaro, Flathead High principal and president of the Montana Association of Secondary School Principals.
And at West Port High School in Marion County Public Schools in Florida, students who are disciplined must reflect on their actions by writing about what prompted their behavior, its consequences and how it could have been avoided, Principal Jayne Ellspermann says.
“When students make poor choices the most important thing we can do is help them not make the same choice in the future,” says Ellspermann, also president-elect of the National Association of Secondary School Principals. “If time out of the classroom or after school is paired with reflection, it can make a difference.”
At Benjamin Banneker Middle School in Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland, students who have misbehaved or need help with classwork are required to visit that teacher’s classroom during lunch period for coaching and tutoring.
This is a big deterrent for most students because they miss out on social time with friends at lunch. Richard Curwin, author of the book Discipline with Dignity, believes detention should only be assigned if a teacher is available to help the student one-on-one with class work.
Rewarding good behavior
Alternatives to detention generally involve a different philosophy about improper behavior and the students who exhibit it. But new approaches are sometimes difficult to implement. “They may require a lot in terms of budgets, staffing and time as opposed to simply writing a pass that says ‘be here at 3 o’clock’,” says Bryan Joffe, project director for education and youth development at the the American Superintendents Association.
But for districts willing to invest the resources, the new approaches show promise. Some of these new models are based on relationship building and social-emotional learning. Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports, also known as PBIS, is an increasingly popular approach that emphasizes avoiding bad behavior by rewarding good behavior.
When students behave badly at PBIS schools, the staff strives to keep the problem from escalating or interrupting instruction. Then they work to discover why the student was disruptive. Finally, they set behavior goals for the student, develop progress reports teachers can use, offer counseling or develop other specific guidance and evaluate results, according to The Center on Response to Intervention at the American Institutes of Research.
Another approach is to focus on good behavior. Several schools in the the Rapides Parish School District in Louisiana have developed “economies” in which fake money is given to students who follow rules or help others. The students’ earnings can “buy” extra treats at lunch or admission to special activities.
And Lowery Elementary School in the Ascension Public Schools in Louisiana reduced behavior issues by nearly 30 percent in one year using an application called Kickboard, which collects key data about behavior. The program allows teachers to report and track good behavior so top-performers can be acknowledged on a “leader board” display or during morning announcements.
The system also reports what students have behaved badly so teachers can intervene earlier to solve problems. The data identifies which students or groups are repeatedly causing trouble and can then be used to develop personalized behavior plans.
Restorative justice, another approach that has shown promise, brings teachers and students together to discuss specific incidents of bad behavior, analyze the consequences and find solutions.
For instance, in earlier grades a student might explain to classmates how bullying causes anxiety in the victims. In middle or high school, an entire class may talk about how instruction was disrupted by a student’s disrespectful behavior toward a teacher. In either case, victims describe how the event made them feel and the accused has an opportunity to reply.
After the program was implemented two years ago in Racine Unified School District in Wisconsin, fewer behavior incidents were reported to the administration, says Deputy Superintendent Eric Gallien. In the Portland Public School District in Oregon, 95 percent of cases handled through restorative justice ended in an agreement between both sides and more than 100 days of suspension were avoided in a single year. In the Lansing School District in Michigan, the program resolved nearly all of the 522 cases presented over four years, avoiding 1,600 days of suspension.
Racine schools also have seen improved behavior after implementing programs that teach students social-emotional skills, such as how to resolve problems with peers and get attention in appropriate ways.
And at Pottstown High School in Pennsylvania, fighting incidents were cut in half and assignments to detention dropped from 168 to 37 over a two-year period, according to Stephen Rodriguez, who was principal of the the school when the program was implemented. “In a school actively using restorative practices, there is a reduction of all types of discipline issues,” he says. “We saw major results in our first year, and they stuck.”
With some school counselors responsible for up to 1,000 students, some districts have sought assistance from outside agencies. For example, Minneapolis Public Schools developed a program called School Based Mental Health in seven schools. Nearly 150 students were assessed by therapists from the outside agencies for mental health problems and received therapy from outside counseling services, and more than 100 educational programs about topics such as attention deficit issues or adolescent brain development were offered to staff.
However it’s done, finding constructive alternatives to traditional detention for troubled students is an imperative for all school leaders, says Curwin, the author. “Every educator must decide how much energy to invest in chronically-disruptive students,” he says. “However, we know that those we don’t reach are at a much higher risk of committing crimes or otherwise being drains on society. So although they take more time and creativity, reaching and influencing them is immensely important.”
James Paterson is a freelance writer in Delaware.
[hed] What’s behind bad behavior
Students who end up in detention more than just once or twice may be hungry for any kind of attention because they crave a relationship with a teacher or are neglected—or worse—at home, says Fred Hanna, author of the book Therapy with Difficult Clients.
“You will settle for bad food sometimes if that is all you can get,” says Hanna, who has taught classes on challenging teens at Johns Hopkins University. “For some kids, poor quality attention is better than none at all.”
Hanna recalls a young girl who had been in several foster homes who repeatedly challenged him in a group counseling session at an alternative school, but her behavior improved greatly as he developed a one-on-one relationship with her and gave her leadership opportunities. She helped him run the group and mentored younger students.
Off-task students also may be expressing frustration with their inability to succeed or even inciting a power struggle because “they worry that they do not really matter, so they are constantly doing things in an effort to influence others,” says Richard Curwin, author of the book Discipline with Dignity.
Detentions and suspensions have functioned as “rewards” for some students, according to a 2002 paper, “Suspensions and detentions in an urban, low-income school,” published in the Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology. The paper notes that students who receive detention – typically those exhibiting bad behavior or lack of effort, and more likely to be from low-income and minority families – may want a change of scenery from their classrooms.