The New Face of Discipline: Tacoma's Whole Child Initiative

I saw a video recently about a Tacoma’s Whole Child Initiative (watch it here: https://youtu.be/1Kf6mJw7_Xo). It features a young Black middle school student named Eli. Eli is a bright, funny young man, but before he got to Truman Middle School in Tacoma, he was frequently disciplined. Labeled a “problem,” Eli spent a great deal of time in the principal’s office or suspended…both of which took him away from his learning environment. The staff at Truman takes a different approach with Eli and all students. They practice patience, focus on the positive, and use mistakes as opportunities to learn. It’s all part of the Whole Child Initiative.

The Tacoma Whole Child Initiative is a partnership between Tacoma Public Schools and the University of Washington – Tacoma. It’s a strategic plan to help build whole children through social emotional learning. The TWCI focuses on creating a positive school climate, defining and modeling expectations, and teaching and developing positive behaviors. Although still in its infancy, the program is already having an impact. At Truman, where Eli attends, suspensions have decreased by 54%.

Tacoma Public Schools understands some fundamental principles about discipline that many districts do not. Here are a few I have identified:

1)Zero Tolerance Policies Don’t Work: In the 1990s, in response to a rash of school shootings, many districts implemented zero tolerance policies. Zero tolerance policies require immediate suspension or expulsion for certain offenses, usually possession of drugs or weapons. Some policies, however, have been expanded to include behaviors such as threatening demeanor and insubordination, which are completely subjective. Stories of unintended consequences abound, perhaps none so infamous as the arrest of student Ahmed Mohamed  for bringing a reassembled electronic clock to school. Zero tolerance policies disregard the circumstances surrounding the alleged offense, and innocent children often find themselves punished as if they were adults. When there has been an actual infraction, they do nothing to teach the child what could have been done differently and how to avoid future problems. Finally, zero tolerance policies haven’t made schools safer.

2)Current Disciplinary Policies Feed the School to Prison Pipeline: When students are removed from the classroom and school through suspensions and expulsions, they are much more likely to end up in the criminal justice system. Removing children from the educational setting can result in disengagement and thus, continued misbehavior. So when we push students out of the learning environment, we push them into the school to prison pipeline. Those students affected are disproportionately students of color and students with disabilities. The U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights found that Black students are 3.5 times more likely to be suspended as White students. This disparity is evident in the prison population as well, with Blacks and Latinos comprising 61% of incarcerated individuals.

3)Misbehavior Can Result From Toxic Stress: Evidence now suggests that when students act out, it is actually caused by a biological response to toxic stress. Toxic stress often develops in students who live in poverty because it is associated with adverse childhood experiences, such as abuse and neglect. Toxic stress can cause panic, depression, and anxiety, all of which make children more likely to misbehave. Disciplinary systems that are punitive and shame-based just exacerbate the problem. When we suspend and expel students, we rob them of their opportunity to be in a safe, nurturing place and send them right back into the traumatic environment that caused the stress in the first place.

What’s to be done? Here are a few suggestions:

  • Take a long, hard look at your school’s disciplinary practices. Collect and evaluate data on office referrals and suspensions (who, where, when, and why). Consider replacing zero tolerance policies with ones that respect the whole child.
  • Check out Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (www.pbis.org). Start implementing some of the activities, such as focusing on a 3-5 positive behaviors, enumerating how those behaviors look in different situations, refining your system for office referrals, and implementing a “gotcha” system to catch kids being good.
  • Make sure your classrooms are calm, supportive environments. Teach your students mindfulness or meditation to combat stress and anxiety.  Refer at-risk students for individual or small group counseling to work on social emotional skills.
  • Avoid labeling students as “bad apples.” Change the conversation from what’s wrong with the student to what needs to be done to help the student be more successful. Eliminate the culture of shame and failure.

We know what we’re currently doing isn’t working, and our children can’t afford to be victims of the inertia of educational systems. Cheers to Tacoma for taking steps in the right direction. Here’s hoping the rest of us are right behind you.