What’s Working: Suspensions Don’t Improve Student Outcomes. Here’s What Does.

Suspensions don't work

This article is part of the “What’s Working” series, which highlights promising practices for helping to close the graduation gap in communities and states across the country.   

For years now, we’ve known that suspensions hurt students more than they help. Instead of changing students’ behavior, suspensions only put them at higher risk of dropping out. It’s also no secret that harsh discipline policies tend to disproportionately impact students of color.

So it’s a good thing that more states and schools are backing away from suspending students and implementing practices that help them stay in and do better in school. It’s a good thing, too, that more journalists are writing about the trend. 

Based on significant media coverage in the past few months, here are a few tactics that are getting attention – and results.

Restorative Justice

Restorative justice – a practice that works to address the root causes of a student’s behavior – is by far the alternative to suspension that’s gotten the most coverage.

“Restorative justice is built on values like community, empathy and responsibility,” The New York Times Magazine wrote earlier this month. “[I]n its specifics, it asks students and teachers to strengthen connections and heal rifts by sitting on chairs in circles and allowing each participant to speak about how a given incident affected him or her.” 

That same article also reported that schools in Denver and Oakland with these kinds of restorative justice programs saw lower rates of suspension, higher graduation rates and a better school climate.

In some cases, restorative justice also reduced the disproportionate number of students of color who were disciplined. American Public Media recently reported that the discipline gap between students of color and white students narrowed in Denver when the city replaced zero-tolerance with restorative justice districtwide.

Early Childhood Consultation Partnership

NPR recently reported on a state that’s replacing the suspension of preschoolers—yes, preschoolers—with a program that sounds a lot like restorative justice, though they don’t call it that.

Connecticut’s Early Childhood Consultation Partnership (ECCP) focuses on getting to the root of child’s behavior problem. “ECCP, at its essence, is about helping children manage their big feelings and helping teachers and caregivers respond to outbursts, an inevitable fact of preschool life, with patience, understanding and respect — not with big feelings of their own,” NPR wrote.

Across gender and test scores, a Yale study found, the kids who receive this kind of support experience less hyperactivity, restlessness and other behavior problems.

Respect and Empathy

An article in Education Week recently suggested that educators “take a cue from Aretha Franklin” and instead of suspending students, try empathizing with and respecting them.

The article reported on a  Stanford University study of 2,000 middle schools, which found that an intervention designed to help teachers and students empathize with each other ended up halving the number of suspensions at five diverse middle schools in California. It helped previously suspended students feel more connected at school, too.

The study also found that teachers who participated in empathy training were significantly less likely to suspend their students—and more likely to inspire other teachers to skip the suspensions as well.

“The most interesting and inspiring part is that we only intervened with one of the students’ teachers, and it affected their interactions with every other teacher,” Jason A. Okonofua, a Stanford University social psychologist who led the study, told Education Week. “Just having one better relationship with a teacher at school—just one—can serve as a buffer for all the other struggles and challenges at school.”


To read other stories in the “What’s Working” series, check out Oregon District Credits Smaller Schools, Dual-Language Immersion for Soaring Grad Rates and 7 Tips for Using Collective Impact to Raise Graduation Rates.


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Learn more about the GradNation State Activation initiative

The GradNation State Activation initiative is a collaboration between America’s Promise Alliance and Pearson to increase high school graduation rates by encouraging statewide innovation and collaboration, sharing that knowledge and replicating what works, and developing successful models all states can replicate.