Tolerance and understanding solve school discipline problems, zero tolerance makes them worse

The principal at Lincoln High, an "alternative" school in Walla Walla, WA that was used as a dumping ground for kids with "behavioral" problems, decided to ditch the "zero-tolerance" approach to school discipline. Instead, Jim Sporleder tried treating traumatized, furious kids with compassion and understanding. Their behavior improved dramatically.

2009-2010 (Before new approach)
* 798 suspensions (days students were out of school)
* 50 expulsions
* 600 written referrals

2010-2011 (After new approach)
* 135 suspensions (days students were out of school)
* 30 expulsions
* 320 written referrals

...These suspensions don’t work for schools. Get rid of the “bad” students, and the “good” students can learn, get high scores, live good lives. That’s the myth. The reality? It’s just the opposite. Says the NEPC report: “…research on the frequent use of school suspension has indicated that, after race and poverty are controlled for, higher rates of out-of-school suspension correlate with lower achievement scores.”

There are just two simple rules, says Turner.

Rule No. 1: Take nothing a raging kid says personally. Really. Act like a duck: let the words roll off your back like drops of water.

Rule No. 2: Don’t mirror the kid’s behavior. Take a deep breath. Wait for the storm to pass, and then ask something along the lines of: “Are you okay? Did something happen to you that’s bothering you? Do you want to talk about it?”

It’s not that a kid gets off the hook for bad behavior. “There have to be consequences,” explains Turner. Replace punishment, which doesn’t work, with a system to give kids tools so that they can learn how to recognize their reaction to stress and to control it. “We need to teach the kids how to do something differently if we want to see a different response.”

Lincoln High School in Walla Walla, WA, tries new approach to school discipline — suspensions drop 85% (via Making Light)


  1. Yes, this seems like an obvious choice.  But it’s hard to do as an individual teacher and even harder to manage as an organization.  How many of us work for managers who even strive to follow those two rules?

    Dan Meyer, years back, suggested that this is a universal learning process for competent teachers.  Carver’s Classroom Managment

    1. Never mind that managers often run their little “fief” by “do as i say, not as i do”…

    2. Competent teachers make all the difference.  I’d like to do a bit of bragging!

      My wife is a science teacher and for many years had the odd distinction of collecting troubled kids in her classes.  Intentionally.  She had many tricks and techniques.

      Getting them “hooked” early and on her side with fun learning
      Sending them postcards praising good work
      Putting them in charge
      Clean slate
      Having fun.  Hands on, almost no homework or assigned reading.
      Plus other stuff.

      She developed a reputation of getting kids to behave.  So much so that kids that trashed a classroom would be sent to hers to cool off.  Some kids wouldn’t even bother to go to other classes or their assigned classes.  They’d have 2,3,4 hours of science a day.  She gets letters and hugs from these same kids all the time, years later.

      She even maneuvered herself into doing class scheduling for the counselors.  She made sure she had the worst performing kids (she has more fun with them, calls the other kids boring).  At one point she had double the number of special ed kids in each of two class periods than any special ed teacher … because they are capped by law.

      The result was her kids outperformed all the other kids.  On average, going up more on standardized tests than all the other kids (the equivalent of 2 years).  4 years running.

      Because of that, she’s been reassigned to to teach accelerated science to advanced students.  Things are great there too.  She teaches 6th, 7th, 8th graders.  She’s had many students for 3 years.   She spends too much time blowing stuff up to teach to the test, but the average rate of improvement on tests is the equivalent of 3 years per year.  For 3 years.

      And, she’s also the mentor to several new science teachers who are using her teaching style in their classrooms.  Ever had a teacher wear a Transformers mask while teaching?  Well, it’s accepted and normal now.

      Her philosophy is to never be bored.  And she’s pushing for accelerated science for every kid.

      Thanks for letting me brag.

      1.  Dude, LINK???  I mean, write this awesome lady up and get that stuff PUBLISHED, at least on your blog!!!  I bet BoingBoing will pick that up and post it in the blogroll…  oh and nice work, you.  You picked a good one!!  :)

  2. Playing Devil’s Advocate, would you not expect those sorts of statistics even if behaviour hadn’t actually improved? After all, if there’s zero tolerance, then of course more people will be expelled for more things. That’s what happens when you don’t tolerate any deviation from the rules, but it doesn’t mean rules aren’t still being broken.

    So I don’t really find the statistic particularly compelling, but on the other hand I think the latter approach is the one that is more likely to foster respect in the mid-long term. 

    1.  This bothered me too. I liked everything else: the actual approach being used, the research it drew on and the article written about it.

      But the statistics? School implements a program where suspensions and expulsions are no longer used as automatic/first resort for certain incidents –> of course suspensions and expulsions occur less frequently. It says nothing about the frequency of the incidents themselves occurring less often.

      If only they’d chosen a different measure to quantify their success.

        1.  The same act isn’t the same if it’s followed by a suspension or expulsion, though. The effect it has on the student who did it is much bigger of course. There are good studies on what even just being suspended does to a kid’s future in school and thus to his whole life. It also has a negative impact on the other kids around, I believe, although I haven’t read any studies on that. I do remember how different it was to be in a class where the teacher was zero-tolerance draconian rather than strict.

        2.  I’d have chosen both.

          Before and after the change in policy, I’d have used student surveys about self-esteem and quality of life, academic test-scores, and frequency of easily definable incidents (like swearing at a teacher). And I’d also interview and do a narrative, qualitative study.

          This sounds like an excellent approach to education, it would be a shame if it were judged by this outcome measure (reduced days of suspension/expulsion) which is so prominently displayed in the article’s headline.

          As jrosiek comments below, this is a measure of administration/teacher behaviour, not student behaviour. It tells us that the policy was successful in getting administration/teachers to stop issuing so many suspensions/expulsions, but says nothing about the outcomes they were attempting to achieve in their student population.


        Some things are inherently impossible to capture in statistics, and trying to do so will invariably lead to unintended consequences.

    2. The point wasn’t the number of expulsions. The point was that the theory that getting rid of the worst students (hence increasing the number of expulsions) would naturally leave behind the better students (hence increasing achievement scores) turned out to be wrong. The effect was the opposite. A decrease in the number of expulsions was correlated to an increase in achievement scores.

  3. Zero tolerance is a sham. This has been known for awhile. It  allows an org to turn off their brains and point to a rule book. No one wins when your actions require you to be brain dead to carry them out. This is why you have kids suspended for stupid stuff like a GI Joe gun left in a pocket, etc.

    1. And then we contemplate that for example the war on drugs is a zero tolerance policy…

    2. Yes. Remember, “zero tolerance” and “intolerance” are just two different terms for the same thing.

  4. Using referrals and suspensions as a measure of the success of a new school intervention program is problematic.  They are in not an objective measure of changes in student behavior.  They are a measure of change in teacher and administration behavior.  Of course referrals would go down if you implemented a less confrontational discipline policy.  This does not mean kids experience disruption, harassment, and bullying at any lower rate.

  5. This sounds like a classic example of regression toward the mean

    It also sounds very compassionate and awesome, but speaking as an epidemiologist, you’d want to compare the improvement in behavior of kids who go into this kind of program to the improvement of behavior in kids who go into the discipline and punish type programs.

  6. “Says the NEPC report: “…research on the frequent use of school suspension has indicated that, after race and poverty are controlled for, higher rates of out-of-school suspension correlate with lower achievement scores.””

    That’s typically the kind of reasoning that makes me think of Freakonomics:  someone here seems to interpret a mere indication as a causality. Although they only mention correlation, the citation seems to imply causality to justify the low-suspension-rate policy…

    What is the simplest explanation? That higher suspension rates cause lower achievement scores or that students that receive lots of suspensions are likely to be the one with low achievement scores in the first place, thus the correlation? To me, it seems that the high suspension rate is more an indicator of the low achievement of the suspended children than it is its cause…

  7. I tried replacing every incidence of “Children” in that article with “Wall Street Banker”. It was confusing. I’m thinking now, yes, we want No Tolerance.

    1. It is confusing when we try to have the exact. same. rules. for children still developing responsibility and self-awareness and adults consciously ripping people off.

  8. Cory, I can’t thank you enough for keeping this stuff in the limelights.

    We’ve got overwhelming, reproducible proof that “zero tolerance” policies are harmful to children and fundamentally compromise the educational process – making our kids more ignorant and less capable of controlling themselves – yet there are still people (in this very thread, no less!) who are incapable of putting aside their need to punish in favor of an educational system designed to educate.

  9. Incidentally, when zero tolerance came to town hereabouts, it wasn’t long before all the best school principals quit or retired.  We’re selecting for sadists.

  10. First Maureen Walsh, now compassionate schooling? If I hadn’t been there a few dozen times, I’d start to think Walla Walla was some kind of progressive fantasy land.

    (Well, perhaps within the confines of Whitman College, it is. Don’t cross the street, though.)

  11. Jim Sporleder tried treating traumatized, furious kids with compassion and understanding. Their behavior improved dramatically.

    I wish this was an Onion article.

    I hope more people learn that conservative “tough love” is nothing more than “soft hate” and you’ll end up with blind rebellion or submissive drones with that foolhardy approach.

    Give respect if you expect it in return.  It’s pretty simple.

  12. What do you know! Heaping more problems on people with problems creates problems! Next you’ll be telling me leeches don’t cure cancer.

  13. Principal: “I could expel you!”

    Emo Phillips: “You’ll have to catch me and eat me first, ya weirdo!”

  14. I try so hard to follow Rule #1 and I hope to get it right in 99% of cases. It’s certainly a golden rule that most good teachers should follow. I’m just wondering how it equates to other workforces. I can let comments like “dickhead” and “fatass” wash over me. I can cope quite easily with requests to perform certainly anatomically difficult and painful activities, although most of these would result in severe and fairly swift action against the perpetrator in any workplace outside of policing, health care and correctional services. What is it about teachers that we expect them to put up with much higher levels of abuse than would be tolerated in a “normal” workplace ? I’m assuming that the staff at the school are happy with the approach and that appropriate surveys of their attitudes have been factored into this study as well as outcomes for the students.

    I would love for this approach to be shown to be true and beneficial for all parties involved. Unfortunately I’ve worked at places where administrators have decided to show how great the school is by refusing to act on serious behaviour issues (it lowers their exclusion and suspension statistics nicely). I hate zero tolerance attitudes for meaningless crap like uniform infringements, chewing gum or the use of electronic devices. I hate it even more when, as a union rep, I have represented female teachers who were told to “let it ride” and “not take it so personally” after being surrounded by a group of boys in the schoolyard and seriously sexually threatened, and other teachers who were literally hounded out of town by homophobic persecution (after being told by administrators that they should expect those sorts of attitudes in a country town).

    Zero tolerance never works when it’s used to justify cracking down on petty offences (the lie of “if you look after the little stuff, the big stuff will sort itself out”). Universal peace love and understanding for the perpetrator and making the victim feel responsible doesn’t work that well when the offences are criminal ones in the real world

  15. I got my only suspension for calling a teacher a B. The real punishment, however, came a year later when I had to ask to be in her AP course. 

  16. As a teacher, I will tell you that curbing bordom is the strongest position to decrease incidents of obstruction in the classroom. Each child is different and brings a different set of issues, especially in the inner city schools. Keep the material fresh, their bodies and minds active and you will have few problems. Be straight with your expectations and be consistent. It also helps to know and have a passion for the material you are teaching. Students will recognize this very quickly. That said, I would not be honest if I said that teachers do not get frustrated and vent in class at times. We are human after all.  I think its good for kids to understand this as well.

  17. To everyone criticizing the metrics and methodologies, and regression towards mean, etc. You have obviously not read the full article.  

    Go. and. read. it.  ( why do I have to even say that here?! )

    The cited statistic makes a great hook, but it is NOT NOT NOT their primary datapoint, or goal, or standard, or anything else except a something to get your attention.    This program was implemented by the principle at an alternative school *after* he had been there for 1-2 years, so there is before and after data.  They measured improved grades, test performance, graduation rates, specific event instances and outcomes, student attitudes and engagement levels, and a raft of others.  There *IS* data here, and it pretty much all good news.  

  18.  –  This is a video we made of our health center (that’s adjacent to our school) that helps paint a better picture of our mission and the impact we are having on these kids. In no way shape or form do we feel that this is a “revolutionary approach” to discipline, in fact it should be the norm. As eeyore stated, we have a multitude of qualitative data from multiple sources that measure various ways in which we define success in our students. We absolutely hold our kids accountable (i.e. arrests, court action for truancy, detentions, ISS, etc.), we just make a point in looking at causation of behaviors and work to address the root causes of them. What we’ve seen is that in listening to what their stresses, barriers, anger issues, etc stem from, we’re better able to help that student in understanding why it is they behave the way they do, how to reduce that stress/anger, and how it can be handled in a better way down the road. As I said, this seems basic, however, it isn’t the norm for most schools. We are blessed with an amazing amount of community support and have been able to provide the counselors, doctors, programs that these kids have been needing in order to find their true success. In the 5 1/2 years that I’ve been there, our graduating class has gone from 7 to over 50 this year. Jim is an amazing leader and anyone that has set foot in our building can see that it is a culture of caring and accountability.

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