Does your child like to test the limits? It’s natural for children to push boundaries and experiment with breaking the rules. And while making mistakes is a part of growing up, but how your child’s school disciplines these lapses in judgment is crucial.
You may fear your child being labeled as the troublemaker or worry they’ll do something that will result in a suspension or even expulsion—and rightfully so. Punitive disciplinary actions, like suspensions and expulsions, result in missed learning opportunities for children—and at times—hardships for families.
And, there can even be lasting impacts from these exclusionary approaches to discipline, as they are associated with poorer academic performance and higher rates of school dropout, involvement with the criminal justice system. School discipline is a particular concern for African American families, whose children are three to four times more likely to be suspended as their white peers.
During a recent episode of Notes from the Backpack: A PTA Podcast we spoke with former U.S. Secretary of Education John B. King, Jr. about these inequities in school discipline and what you can do to advocate for discipline practices that help all students become responsible, thriving adults.
King’s childhood experiences have made education—and the issue of school discipline—close to his heart. His mother passed away when he was in fourth grade and he was left to care for his father who had undiagnosed Alzheimer’s disease, making school one of the only places he was able to truly be a kid.
He fondly recalls upper elementary and early middle school grades, particularly his teacher Mr. Ostrow, who created such engaging, fun lessons that he was able to momentarily let go of the stresses at home. His father passed away when he was twelve, and the caring adults at school continued to help him find his way.
Although John King is the first U.S. Secretary of Education who was kicked out of high school, he shared that he hopes he is not the last, because it’s an important part of his story.
“Folks who could have looked at me and said, here is an African American, Puerto Rican young man. Family in crisis. What chance does he have? [But] they didn’t give up on me,” King said. “They saw more potential in me than I saw in myself and were willing to invest in me and give me a second chance.”
King said it’s important to view a student’s misbehavior as an opportunity to build and deepen relationships to help get them back on track.
What Can You Do?
Ask questions. As a parent it is important to research your child’s school and district and advocate for best practices. What are the discipline rates (suspensions, expulsions, etc.)? Is corporal punishment used in your child’s school? Are there disparities between the types of discipline used based on different demographic groups?
Advocate for more school counselors. Ask how many school counselors are in your district and how they are assigned. Find out which schools have lower student to school counselor ratios. Attend your school board meeting or a budget hearing to learn about how money is allocated. After gathering information, consult with other parents and caregivers and make your voices heard on the issue.
Get more insight from King in our podcast episode, The Truth About School Discipline in America, available wherever you listen to podcasts!
Rebecca Bauer is the family engagement specialist with the Center for Family Engagement at National PTA.