Steph Jensen, LPC, Boys Town National Training
Zero tolerance policies have not made schools safer. There have been 25 fatal, active school shootings at elementary and high schools in America since Columbine in 1999. I could list study after study detailing how ineffective zero tolerance policies have been in keeping our schools safe, however, the recent tragedy in Florida provides us yet another agonizing example of the utter failure of zero tolerance policies to protect children. We need to replace zero tolerance policies with proven social and emotional learning strategies that build relationships, nurture and connect students to keep our children and communities safe.
Many years ago, a superintendent in New Mexico made a powerful statement following a shooting in their district, “We can force people to walk through metal detectors to keep schools safe from physical violence, but that will do nothing to solve the problem of the emotional harm that is the motivator of this violence.” The solution to addressing school violence is not a simple zero tolerance policy of suspend and expel. The solution to addressing school violence is much more complicated because it requires educators to intentionally build relationships and teach skills to all students. Especially those students that exhibit difficult or challenging behaviors. These students are in the greatest need of the stability and predictability of a safe and structured environment that can only be created and cultivated by purposeful adults in schools.
Creating a Culture of Connection can be accomplished by implementing the following strategies:
Pre-teach Social Skills: A structured, predictable school environment is built on the foundation of teaching social skills to all students intentionally and consistently. Teach skills like, Following Instructions, Accepting a “No” Answer, Disagreeing Appropriately, Accepting Feedback or a Consequence. These skills help to create a Culture of Connection where all students understand expectations and how to perform the skills to meet expectations.
Practice and Prompt: After teaching skills, provide opportunities for students to practice skills in academic and unstructured settings. Practice leads to mastery and internalization of social skills contributing to the development of social emotional competencies. Teaching skills also allows us to prompt skills so students can be more successful behaviorally.
Reinforce: Studies show that one of the primary predictors of a positive environment is a 4:1 praise to correction ratio. People flourish in environments where there are more positive interactions than negative interactions. Skill focused praise not only creates a Culture of Connection, it also builds positive relationships with students and staff.
Correction: When schools intentionally implement the above strategies, they significantly reduce the amount of correction that is necessary. Correction based on social skills keeps the corrective intervention focused on teaching rather than punishment. Corrective conversations based on a skill between teacher and student keeps the correction neutral and builds trust.
Over the coming weeks and months we will all be asking what we can do to make our schools safer. Our role as educators starts with creating a Culture of Connection that is predictable and structured so all students feel safe and connected. Take some time to reflect on these four strategies and determine what you can do in your space and place to move from Zero Tolerance and create a Climate of Connection.