Think Prevention, Not Consequences, For Healthy Classrooms

Rarely has substantial, enduring change ever taken place without first changing the conversation. So to really change the conversation about school climate, we cannot continue to use the same old concepts and terminology. Improving school climate is not the endgame; school climate is part of a larger whole that is necessary to support student success in school. Schools must consider the collateral effects of school climate and how it is supporting—or impeding—engagement and learning.

To do that, schools and school districts need to find new and different ways to manage and use data. In 1970, Edward De Bono coined the term “lateral thinking,” calling on leaders to step outside of their training and expertise to view things from a different perspective. It is time for those who want a new and brighter future for today’s children to step outside of our comfort zones to look at data in new ways to find new and more effective approaches.

Epidemiologists, for example, begin by examining data from a population-based viewpoint and drill down from there to see what is driving those population-level results. Instead of limiting our focus to how we apply the consequences for misbehavior, an epidemiological view of data would push us to focus on prevention and early intervention. That approach could lead us to develop surveillance measures and prevention procedures for specific groups and at-risk populations. It also allows us to identify causes and contributing factors and then match strategies that address those for both targeted groups and whole populations, thereby allowing individual treatments to be more effective. In this way, we could shift from targeted reactions to population-based prevention and intervention.

Epidemiology tells us that diseases do not occur by chance and that the distribution of diseases is not random. Distribution of disease is related to risk and protective factors that can inform solutions. Now, consider disruptive behavior and use the epidemiological concepts of determinants and distribution. Disruptive behaviors do not occur by chance and they are not distributed at random. Just as there are determinants for diseases, there are determinants for disruptive behaviors as well as risk and protective factors that influence distribution. By studying these at a population level, we can to identify effective solutions.

When something occurs at random, we often feel as though we have no control of it. We cannot influence or prevent it. Viewing student discipline data from an epidemiological perspective empowers schools and school districts to discern patterns and clues about behavior, like epidemiologists would, and use those to develop effective responses. It pushes school leaders to look beyond the obvious data elements and seek out causal relationships and possible consequential factors.

All too often we look at shifts in data without investigating the cause behind the shift. For example, some school districts are content when student expulsion and out-of-school suspension rates decline. Before we declare success, we must first ask if the students who had been receiving disciplinary actions remained in the classroom. If they were sent to an alternative education program rather than expelled or suspended, it begs the question as to whether or not the underlying issue was truly addressed. How can it be when the number of students disciplined remained the same and the only thing that changed was the consequence? Has the school district addressed those school climate issues that affect student behavior? A more sophisticated view of data is essential for schools and school districts to fully understand the story and the meaning of the data and what it is telling us about school climate.

— Dr. Garry McGiboney, Deputy Superintendent, Georgia Department of Education

Note to readers: This is part one of a four-part series on school climate by Dr. McGiboney. Look for the rest of the columns in coming weeks.