By Darby West, Principal at KIPP Sunshine Peak Elementary
Currently, the Colorado legislature is considering HB 19-1194, a bill that would prohibit schools from suspending students in preschool through second grade. As the principal of KIPP Sunshine Peak Elementary (KSPE) and the parent of a three-year old boy who will enter preschool this fall at my school, I am proud to add my voice in support of this legislation.
Throughout my career, I have seen how detrimental it can be when we address behavioral issues by removing students from class. The negative impacts from suspensions at an early age don’t just show up on report cards and assessments; these early suspensions can affect a child’s relationship with learning and school for her entire time in the education system. And all too often, it can predetermine whether a student will end up in the cogs of the criminal justice system.
As any educator can tell you, behavior issues in the classroom can take many forms. It can look like hitting, spitting, screaming or sulking. In many schools today, the question would be, “What are the consequences for these behaviors?” The child would spend significant time sitting away from their team, not learning, and not experiencing joy at school. They would internalize school as a horrible, horrible place that makes them feel unsafe. And they begin to view their teacher as a dispenser of punishments, rather than a partner on their path to discover themselves and define their own future.
At KSPE, we do it differently. We ask ourselves, “What does this child need that they are not getting? How do we as adults in this building support this child in building these skills and strategies? What needs to shift in my own thinking to actualize this?”
The key for us has been to develop systems of support. These can look like breaks during class, social emotional interventions, and teaching of replacement behaviors. Instead of trying to control children, we focus a lot on how to talk to them and, more importantly, listen to what may be driving their behavior.
Because of this work, I’m proud to say that KIPP Sunshine Peak Elementary has not suspended a single child this year.
And this is not by accident. We can look to the work that my amazing staff put in each day to understand their students and go the extra mile to address behavior issues in a way that is restorative, rather than punitive. We provide professional development leading up to the school year and throughout the year on how to recognize the driving forces behind behavioral issues and what tools teachers can use to mitigate them before they start.
We talk about the “why” for everything. For example, we believe in a structured environment, not an oppressive one. This means every child, every day, knows what to expect, for example, during cleanup time or while walking in the hallway. And we hold them to these expectations. But we also trust them to navigate these spaces independently, without compliance levels that are developmentally inappropriate for our young students. We believe consistency in expectations provides safety. Only when children feel safe can they take risks. And that is when the learning happens.
The fact is, if we kick a child out of school, where are they going? Where do they have to go? If we believe in building a better tomorrow with our communities, that child must stay in the classroom and engaged with the material. Because otherwise, they are still right here in our community. But they will have internalized that the school is not here for them. And when this happens, we cannot be surprised when we see violence or crime or struggling communities.
At KIPP, we believe all students will learn and achieve when given the opportunity. If we are to make this a reality, we must ensure that “all students” truly means all students.
For more information on this legislation click here.