Removing students from classrooms further harms those who struggle the most
The Virginia House of Delegates has passed House Bill 1461 that would require the Virginia Department of Education to establish a uniform system of discipline for disruptive behavior, including criteria for teachers to remove disruptive students from classes. The bill also recommends the consideration of a three strikes policy for nonviolent disruptive behavior.
While a uniform policy for removal of disruptive students may sound appealing on the surface, the problem it is trying to solve is much too complex and varied for a one-size-fits-all solution. Each child, each teacher, each classroom, each incident is unique; individualized approaches tailored to the specific situation are essential.
There are several misunderstandings and key omissions inherent in the bill. No distinction is made between intentional misbehavior and stress behaviors. Experts in the field of neurophysiology, psychology, and trauma indicate that disruptive behaviors are most often stress responses rather than volitional misbehavior. Stress responses, such as fight/flight behaviors, are a function of the autonomic nervous system. These behaviors are spontaneous, non-volitional reactions designed for survival.
Secondly, there is no mention of trauma. The stress of the pandemic has impacted students as well as teachers and staff. When people experience unpredictable, unrelenting stress, the brain prioritizes survival; access to cognitive functioning (such as impulse control, reasoning, etc.) is limited. Students whose brains are in a state of fear and survival need connection, not removal or exclusion.
Third, this bill would remove the discretion of the teacher, the person closest to the situation, to respond in ways that reflect the uniqueness of the student and the specific situation and circumstances. Throughout Virginia, there are teachers currently supporting struggling students without resorting to a punitive approach that removes them from the learning environment.
Finally, the bill doesn’t reflect the role of the adults in preventing disruptive behaviors or in understanding and addressing root causes. It doesn’t address the many proactive approaches that are relationship-based, neuroscience-aligned, trauma-informed, developmentally appropriate, collaborative, individualized, and neuro-biologically respectful. The bill advocates a purely punitive approach.
Removing students from the classroom does not solve the problem or prevent it from recurring. It would be far better to support budget proposals for increasing teaching staff, expanding access to mental health supports, and providing additional teacher training in the areas of brain development and functioning, how stress impacts the brain, and effective ways to support, not punish students who struggle.
Beth Tolley retired from the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities where she led the team providing oversight and guidance for localities implementing Part C (Early Intervention) of the Individuals with Disabilities Education (IDEA). Tolley is a board member of two state mental health organizations. She has also had experience as a parent and grandparent of students in Virginia’s K-12 public education system.
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