Dan and Larry wrap up their conversation about developing equitable, supportive, and restorative systems of school discipline by discussing how districts can start making changes. They touch on leadership and teams, and touch on SEL and social context as well. See previous installments here.

Larry: If a district wants to do something, what are some of the important first steps?

Dan: You have to have leadership that is on board. If you have principals who are not going to support the changes, that is going to make it very difficult, because, especially with regard to something like school discipline, so much goes through the principal. If the principal is an instructional leader in your school, they are going to evaluate you on not just whether kids are getting good grades, but on what they see in that classroom. So if they value collaborative learning environments, that’s going to help a great deal. But if they are looking to see kids sitting in a row and judging you on how much test scores improve, that is going to be a problem. What matters is having that kind of leadership and support for teachers, having special educators work with regular educators, having collaborative time to talk about kids and work with kids.

Larry: We’re big advocates of helping schools to organize in collaborative teams, whether grade level teams or subject-specific teams working together on changes to classroom practices, or climate-discipline teams driving schoolwide change. We advocate mixing teachers, student support specialists, and administrators to get different perspectives and voices on different leadership teams. It’s a great vehicle for continuous learning in schools.

SEL, Mindsets, and Social Context

Larry: Historically, Engaging Schools’ work has been about integrating academics with social and emotional learning and development. This conversation has been going on for a long time about early childhood elementary but not as long about middle and high schools, which are our focus. It is important to recognize first of all the mission of schools is bigger than academic preparation. We need to prepare our young people to be academically successful and healthy from a social and emotional point of view. We’ve also learned a lot more in the last ten to fifteen years about the skills sets that young people can develop that will help them be successful in school, life, and workplace. There is important new work coming out about the various mindsets young people can develop. We can proactively help them to develop mindsets that will enable them to be successful. Coming back to the school discipline issue, this will help students develop positive relationships with teachers and one another and avoiding problematic behaviors. They will know how to deal with conflict without escalating towards violence or other sorts of unhealthy responses to situations.

Dan: We also need to understand the social context to help kids resist things that we know are problematic. With bullying, there are always bystanders, people who just go along. Same thing with sexism–you hear about fraternities. A good proportion of people who witness that behavior don’t feel comfortable, but they go along with it rather than stand up to it. There is a lot that schools can do to help students learn about themselves and what is acceptable and what is not. Far too many schools teach what is on the test, and social and emotional learning is not on the test, so it’s pushed to the side, though it may be the most important thing to that child’s development and to their health down the road.

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