I don’t have much tolerance for zero-tolerance policies. You’ve heard me say it before: behavior is communication. Sending kids home for misbehavior is punishing them for symptoms, and a real opportunity for learning is lost. We do send kids home very occasionally, usually because the others need a break from him or her. But we are clear that the best thing for the “perpetrator” is to get them back in the mix as quickly as possible and help them understand what went wrong. Two recent instances come to mind.
One of our younger children got very upset the other day. Our teacher assistant carried him to another room, where he rolled on the floor, howling that he was going to get a gun and shoot us all. He even made a gun with his fingers and pointed it at us. Were we worried? Not at all. After all, he’s six and he doesn’t have access to guns. That was simply the only way he knew to tell us just how angry he was. When he calmed down, I heard Ms. Courtney, his teacher, explain, “It’s okay to be angry. You say, ‘I am angry because . . . ‘” Was it scary to the other kids? Not a bit. Kids in the nearest class simply shook their heads and smiled knowingly. “I used to sound like that,” one older child told me. Kids and adults alike understood this was the cry of a child feeling powerless and frustrated and not the voice of a budding criminal. They know that as he gains power over his impulses, emotions, and actions, he will stop doing and saying things like that, just as they have.
That same day, David and Nash bumped shoulders in the hall. David immediately turned and started pummeling Nash, who is far bigger and who was quite willing to stomp David into the ground. Because there are always teachers in the hall during class changes, Mr. P gave Nash a big bear hug and moved him away from the action. I took David into the kitchen, while Mr. Williams got the other kids where they needed to go. Mr. Harrison covered Mr. P’s class while he walked Nash for twenty minutes, listening to his frustration and helping him come up with coping strategies. Ms Reily, our SLP, took David and helped him see that bumping shoulders in the hall was not an act of aggression, but an accident. She first helped him calm his body and get out of his fight, flight, or freeze mode and then they talked about it. In some schools, fighting results in suspension. Here we stop it immediately, figure out what the problem is, and help the kids through that breakdown.
With a zero tolerance policy, learning opportunities for several kids would have been lost. There are other ways to keep kids safe than by sending them home, and we actively look for those ways.