Young girl at desk with arms crossed


Three Reasons Exclusionary Discipline Can Cause Students to Drop Out

Elizabeth Pufall Jones

Why does being suspended or expelled increase the odds that a student will drop out of school?

It’s a phenomenon that has been well-established in the research community (which you can read about here), but it may sound counterintuitive to some: Suspending and expelling students doesn’t do much to change a student’s behavior, but it does increase the odds that students will drop out of school.

A few months ago, my research team and I at the Center for Promise published a report about the impact exclusionary discipline policies have on students, Disciplined and Disconnected: The Experience of Exclusionary Discipline in Minnesota and the Promise of Non-Exclusionary Alternatives.

Talking to these students helped us understand more about the reasons why exclusionary discipline can cause students to drop out. Here are a few possible answers:

1. Loss of Class Time

When a young person is excluded, they are removed from their learning environment, causing them to lose time on learning tasks, making learning and school advancement difficult, as this 2014 study notes.

In our report, one participant who was chronically absent was ordered to go to a truancy court. However, she had to miss school to do so, which incurred another mark against her truancy. This, in turn, led her to miss school again to meet her court obligation. “Why do they make you go to court during school for missing school?” she asked. “And I got truancies for the days that I missed for going to court, too.”

“Why do they make you go to court during school for missing school? And I got truancies for the days that I missed for going to court, too.” 

Other young people discussed missing class time, sometimes important quizzes and tests, making it difficult for them to stay on track or catch up. In fact, the leading research indicates an inverse relationship between suspensions and achievement, where higher rates of suspension were associated with lower rates of academic achievement. 

Similarly, research suggests that students who are suspended are more likely to be held back in their grade, rather than being promoted on time with their peers. When students’ academic achievement is undermined, their path to graduation may be threatened. 

2. Loss of Trust and Connection

The young people we spoke with explained that teachers and administrators often did not ask them why they did the things that got them in trouble, or would not listen to them when they tried to explain their side of the story. This left the students feeling like there was no one they could turn to in the school. Research on exclusionary discipline appears to validate that sentiment, indicating that exclusion can contribute to feelings of mistrust and disconnection from school.

A major systematic review of the research associated with exclusions found that across studies, feelings of connection to school were negatively related to the number of suspensions given—especially when levied for minor infractions. Other research suggests that a lower commitment to school and lower teacher relationship score were associated with an increased likelihood of school suspension.

So, at an individual level, young people are less likely to feel connected to their school and teachers if they have been suspended. When students disconnect from their educations and the people facilitating their educations, persisting through graduation becomes even more challenging. 

3. Negative Labeling

The young people we spoke with discussed how their exclusion led them to being labeled as “bad kids” by their school communities. These negative labels publicly stigmatize youth who have been suspended and contributes to a self-perpetuating cycle in which young people are repeatedly suspended. 

“All you got to do is to get suspended one time and you’re labeled,” a young person in the report said. “I see it, like they follow the same kids around, like everybody knows, ‘Hey, those are the bad kids…’ 

“I see it, like they follow the same kids around, like everybody knows, ‘Hey, those are the bad kids…’

One report found that 40 percent of students who had been suspended received more than one suspension. Not only does a suspension increase the possibility of subsequent suspensions, it  also increases the likelihood of subsequent  anti-social behaviors, such as carrying a weapon, stealing, or hurting someone. 

These effects hold after accounting for the pre-suspension characteristics of students, and they have been shown to reverberate through adulthood. Thus, a negative label can be felt and internalized in such a manner that a young person’s behavior is molded to it, which contributes to a host of negative outcomes for many years.

Strategies for Improvement

As we consider ways to improve school discipline practices, we should consider the challenges that arise from exclusionary discipline and how we might alleviate them. 

Instituting a homework policy for those suspended so they avoid falling behind, working to foster relationships among teachers, working to increase feelings of belonging among teachers, staff, and students at school, and combating the stigma often associated with disciplinary action are possible strategies for improvement. 

It is certainly the case that many schools with the highest rates of exclusion have the fewest resources, leaving school personnel without the tools necessary to appropriately engage young people. Improvement initiatives come at great cost. But having our children leave school without graduating costs schools and society at large much more. 

This story is part of a special series on school discipline. Other stories in the series include The Link Between Suspensions, Expulsions, and Dropout Rates, Six Steps to Implementing Restorative Practices, Youth Voice: Detention Never Stopped Me from Cutting Class. Here’s What Did, and Five Youth Quotes on What It’s Like to Be Suspended or Expelled.