School Discipline That Works

The following editorial was published by The Jonesboro Sun on Friday, February 22, 2019, on pages A4-A5. It was written by my colleague, Robin S. Kuykendall, an educational consultant and owner of Advocate & Educate, LLC, in Jonesboro, Arkansas. Robin has a long history of advocacy on behalf of special needs students and their parents, and she works tirelessly to ensure the educational opportunities for the students she serves. Robin is such an asset to the education community, and if you have a child with special needs, I highly recommend her services.

“[Arkansas] Students with disabilities are five times more likely to be spanked as students without.” – from Arkansas Advocates for Children & Families, “School Discipline That Works” (Jan. 31, 2019).

Why is that? It sounds like misguided adult supervision to resort to physical messages before a child’s other communication skills are developed. Is it wrong? Or is it just backward? While it’s possible that whuppins are useful in some extreme, emergency, or exemplary instances, my vote goes with “backward”, and I’ll tell you why in a minute.

First, I recommend that you read the brand new report on school discipline by our friends at Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families, “School Discipline That Works: Better Options for Helping all Children Learn and Thrive.” You can see and download it, here: content/uploads/School-Disc.webfinal.1.23.19.pdf. There, you can see that other identifiable groups, including black children, are also disciplined more often, or more harshly than some groups, and it’s NOT WORKING.

Here’s one specific reason why I believe that disabled children, especially learning or emotionally disabled children, are too often disciplined before they are educated: Adults often do not view many forms of disability, or an undiagnosed learning disability, as opportunities for special needs educational practice which would educate many children out of the “problem” pool. There may be a sense of shame for one’s own disorderly child, or perhaps adults simply do the best they know. Like all people, adults who deal with children hide lack of knowledge rather than seek solutions.

So, uninformed adults will dismiss “problem” or nonconforming behaviors with, “He’s just showing out” or, “She’s doing it for attention”, as if those are simply naughty behaviors demanding forceful intervention by stronger persons. (Corporal punishment or suspension, whether in-school or out, all require fear of force in order to gain a short-term result.) These adult attitudes have half the equation correct, that destructive or disrespectful behavior is a cry for adult attention. But the rest of the story comes when we view these behaviors as the child’s only way to say, “Help me! I don’t know how to tell you I don’t understand! Here’s something I know you understand, and maybe that will get me what I really want and need, to grow!” And then, BOOM! We reinforce the child’s miscommunication with our own use of direct force or forced detention (suspension and worse forms of total exclusion) and the destructively bad communication cycle deepens.

That prevalent adult attitude is downright paradoxical in a state where child poverty, hunger, and deficient medical care rise to incredible, selfish levels, especially for “other” children. Top off a child’s risky start with absence of Pre-K and a century-late recognition that methodically structured reading instruction can produce proficient outcomes with most students, and it is clear that many discipline problems do not lie with “naturally unruly children.” Businesses avoid locating in Arkansas, they say, because they cannot find reasonably functional employees. Military recruiters close shop because so many of our high school graduates cannot routinely pass the entry exam.

We’ve got to change our educational investment strategies, because we clearly lose easy returns.

We can change our thinking. We need to ask, “How can we help the most children and begin to reap the benefits of productive citizens, rather than unemployed or imprisoned lives?” We cannot continue to discard the innocent before we render aid.

Often times, educators look for the well-known learning disabilities in children, such as dyslexia, speech delays, auditory processing deficits, or the umbrella categories of ADHD and autism. Yes, these are more readily identified today (yet still often overlooked), but schools seem reluctant to find other categories of learning disability. Did you know, there are other conditions which fit the special needs categories?

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act identifies the following “Specific Learning Disabilities”: perceptual disabilities, brain injury, minimal brain dysfunction (ADD or ADHD), dyslexia (which can include math processing), and developmental aphasia. But that’s not all. The explanatory regulation, enabled by the IDEA statute, goes deeper. It defines a “child with a disability … as having mental retardation [intellectually challenged], a hearing impairment (including deafness), a speech or language impairment, a visual impairment (including blindness), a serious emotional disturbance … an orthopedic impairment, autism, traumatic brain injury, an other health impairment, a Specific Learning Disability [see above in this paragraph], deaf-blindness, or multiple disabilities, and who by reason thereof, needs special education …” This regulation continues on to give extra attention to children aged three through nine experiencing a raft of developmental delays. In other words, we need to nip disciplinary problems in the bud, rather than waiting to swat them on the [insert]. Many of these special needs could also be effectively addressed by early instruction in reading and oral communication with known productive methods, now known as “science of reading instruction”.

The costs of ignoring educational deficits cannot be overestimated and hugely outweigh the cost of early cure, as pointed out in the AACF report, cited earlier here. (Although I risk becoming an echo to their fine work, I believe the message bears frequent and loud repetition. I sound a happy echo.) After missing the early opportunity, we’re looking at years of remedial work hired in addition to regular classroom payroll and often not effective. Taxpayer costs of detention and incarceration grow astronomically and continue rising. Children grow socially belligerent and adults do no more than blame each other. In a sense, they are correct, but the fault lies in the collectively negligent decisions made a decade earlier.

We can cut our noxious vine at the root. Free access to public education in the least restrictive environment is a right for every student, a remedy for what ails too many. The purpose of special education is to “…meet [students’] unique needs and prepare them for further education, employment, and independent living.”5 A child’s qualification for special education need not be a life sentence, in many, many cases. The purpose of special needs services is to equip the child for the regular classroom and for adult independence. The earlier we apply that poultice, the sooner the patient—we, the people—can heal and all share, together, in the abundant life opportunity of the Natural State.

Robin S. Kuykendall, JD

February 7, 2019 Jonesboro, Arkansas

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