When a student misbehaves in school and violates policy, it sometimes becomes a knee-jerk reaction to respond with suspension. However, research shows us that our attempt at curbing future ‘bad’ behavior through suspensions is counterproductive and aids the school-to-prison pipeline.

Over 40,000 students in Connecticut received out-of-school suspension (OSS) for the 2013-2014 school year. Many students who receive OSS are often left unsupervised and without constructive activities; when they return to school, they are often behind in their coursework and can easily become disengaged. In addition, antisocial behavior (as a result of trauma and/or disenchantment) and high OSS rates among students are significantly correlated to exposure to the juvenile justice system.

Children are pushed farther and farther away from school when copious suspensions are sanctioned, putting students at a greater risk of dropping out. Out-of-school suspensions are indicative of gaps in supportive services that must be present to ensure students have the necessary supports to thrive and succeed.

What attributes to this vicious cycle? Instability in homes, poverty in communities and the impact associated with childhood trauma can exacerbate the difficulties of students going to school emotionally prepared to learn. When students’ emotional needs are recognized and handled effectively, they are able to learn, get the most out of their education experiences and focus on doing their best in school. By helping students better identify and manage negative feelings of anger, disappointment or shame, more positive and empathetic relationships can strengthen which cultivates a climate of emotional fortitude.

Bridgeport’s particularly high rate of in-school and out-of-school suspensions has led the district to make a concerted effort aimed at improving school climate and keeping students in classrooms. Following national best practice models, the district is responding to these concerns by incorporating social emotional learning throughout all Bridgeport Public Schools. Social emotional learning (SEL) refers to the process of integrating thinking, feeling and behaving in order to become aware of yourself and of others. A number of studies support the notion that targeted social emotional learning interventions can improve the social emotional attributes of classrooms and facilitate students’ social emotional and academic well-being.

The Bridgeport Child Advocacy Coalition (BCAC) has been collaborating with Bridgeport’s schools and the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence to implement social emotional learning through the RULER (Recognizing, Understanding, Labeling, Expressing and Regulating emotions) Approach. The RULER approach is an evidence-based methodology that helps schools integrate emotional intelligence into their everyday practice. This model teaches educators the alternatives to directly suspending students for misbehaviors and how to better recognize, understand and handle a child’s conduct and mixed emotions. The RULER approach helps students communicate their feelings to others for more open dialogues and strengthened relationships. Social emotional learning and RULER will not only operate in the Bridgeport Public Schools, but will extend out to a student’s personal and family environments as this is also a community-wide initiative.

Social Emotional Learning drives down high rates of suspension, expulsion, class disruptions and chronic absenteeism and improves school safety. This initiative will lead to a more positive school climate overall and can improve student’s leadership skills, social competency, motivation and study skills and decrease anxiety and depression. Research states that children need to feel connected to others, have confidence in their abilities and feel secure in their environment. School settings have much to do with meeting these needs and fostering these types of positive interactions. When classrooms emulate such positivity and encouragement, students are more likely to get their social emotional needs met and in turn, flourish in society.

On Oct. 22, in partnership with the Bridgeport Public Schools’ Social and Emotional Learning Task Force, BCAC will introduce the RULER approach to the Bridgeport community for parents, educators and community organizations and leaders. This workshop will also include a presentation on the release of BCAC’s suspension report, LOST CLASS TIME: Redefining School Suspensions and Improving School Climate. If you would like to attend, please RSVP with us by calling 203-549-0075, ext.10, or email Nicole Bass at nbass@bcacct.org. Light refreshments and childcare will be provided.

While Bridgeport Public Schools has made significant progress in reducing school suspensions and expulsions, both BCAC and the district are committed to further reducing school suspensions through the implementation of social emotional learning. Our children deserve the best.

The Bridgeport Child Advocacy Coalition is a coalition of organizations, parents and other diverse members committed to improving the well-being of Bridgeport’s children and families through research, education, advocacy and mobilization. Mary Pat C. Healy is its executive director and Ashley R. Blanchard is its public policy and research analyst.

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