Last month I reported the alarming number of out-of-school suspensions across the U.S. and outlined three issues that contribute to students from poverty being suspended. I would now like to outline two practical (and interrelated) approaches I used as a principal, school counselor, and teacher in three different schools. Using both approaches creates consistently positive ways to address misbehavior and build responsibility.

Before I proceed with this revolutionary blog post, I want to say that I have used the ideas and taught the skills I reference. But what is new and exciting is the idea to combine the two approaches—they complement each other. The key to success is to use both approaches, consistently, every day.

My first preventive practice is really an intervention: It’s based on what shouldn’t be a revolutionary idea: Treat misbehavior as a problem; a problem to be solved—not a chance to punish and then expect a change in behavior. I got this idea from William Glasser’s book Choice Theory. Glasser was a giant in psychology and schools.

I call the approach Time Out for Problem Solving (TOPS). Initially, when misbehavior occurs, the teacher asks:

“What were you doing when the problem started?” (Teacher guides the student to label what the student did.)

“Was that against the rules?” (Rules have been taught early on and are known by all students.)

“We have a problem: My job is to teach, and yours is to learn. Can we work it out so this doesn’t happen again?”

If the student responds inappropriately in any way, the student is sent to the office or TOPS area. “If you won’t follow our rules, you are choosing to leave the class.”

In the TOPS area, an individual (school counselor and/or individual trained in active listening) will take the child through a simple, five-step problem-solving approach that reflects the feelings behind the behavior and explores options. The student is not summarily dumped in a room for in-school suspension. Rather, the student must make a plan to correct the problem the student has caused (take responsibility for actions), and the student won’t be allowed back into the classroom until the teacher approves the plan.

And what about the plan itself? To paraphrase Payne, if individuals cannot plan, they cannot predict, identify cause and effect relationships, or identify consequences—all of which contribute to controlling impulsivity. Ultimately, if one cannot control impulsivity, this inclines one “toward criminal behavior.”

Of course, the individual in charge of TOPS may call the parent and/or provide a consequence. With exceptions for extreme misbehavior, the first choice is not an out-of-school suspension. As a principal I did not have space for a TOPS room, but I did treat misbehavior as a problem to be solved. And I almost never suspended out of school (fewer than 10 times per year for four or five students, and then usually for one day only). And when I did suspend students out of school, it was a punishment but rarely worked to change behavior.

The second preventive practice is Character Education Skills for Students (CHESS).

The key to this approach is to hold class meetings on a daily basis—a minimum of 15 minutes for grades K–2 and 30 minutes for grades 3–5. Meetings are conducted by the teacher. Just being in a circle teaches that everyone is important. This daily interaction wherein the teacher teaches communication skills fosters building a classroom community and a positive relationship of respect between teacher and students.

Moreover, as the year proceeds, the class comes to develop their own norms of behavior—positive peer pressure becomes a fact of life that reinforces the classroom’s rules. In other words, it’s not just the school’s rules; it’s now our classroom rules—The Way We Do Things.

Consistency is always the key with discipline; this is also the case in developing self-discipline and learning responsibility. In a CHESS classroom, daily proactive negotiation and communication/problem-solving skills are taught and practiced; students experience the give-and-take of human interaction; students learn it’s okay to be different from others. Of course, the teacher also reinforces students verbally as the teacher sees them using negotiation/communication skills throughout the school day. Students are constantly learning that choices always have consequences.

Specific skills are taught and used, including listening (how to attend and show you’re paying attention to another person); how to ask open questions; how to paraphrase, clarify, and summarize what others are saying; and much more. These are skills that demonstrate respect for others. How so? Truly open questions (who, what, where, when, how, and why) are nonjudgmental. The goal of an open question is to learn information—to open a conversation, not find a right answer. Teachers also learn that they may not agree with what a student may say, but you don’t start a conversation with a closed question. But be careful when asking why: It can make a child defensive. Which question would you better respond to: How did that happen? or Why did you do that?

So what do these two interrelated practices, fully implemented, need to be successful? How would these two approaches look in a school that was committed to (1) treating misbehavior as an opportunity to teach problem-solving and (2) building class communities in which students learn communication and problem-solving skills and how to be responsible citizens?

You would need four components and a mindset:

  1. Time scheduled every day to teach and practice communication skills and build community in classrooms in morning meetings. I recommend a school/school district pilot this program and begin with teachers interested in trying the concepts.
  2. TOPS room/dedicated space for the problem-solving/planning process to take place.
  3. School counselor (or an individual trained as a nonjudgmental listener) to staff a TOPS room that is always open. The process requires the listener to meet with the child and guide the child through the two processes: problem-solving and planning. It’s not a holding room.
  4. Teacher training: Nonjudgmental listening and questioning skills on the part of teachers is essential to building trusting relationships and teaching communication skills in CHESS daily meetings. This is different from asking academic questions with the emphasis on one right answer.
  5. Growth mindset: Parents/guardians of students from poverty mean well; they love their kids, but they are at the survival level of life and for many reasons often don’t give their children skills and understandings they need to succeed in school. They need help that the schools can provide.

Long-term benefits: The administration (school or district level) must be committed to implementing with fidelity steps 1–4. In the larger sense, implementing both practices—and reducing out-of-school suspensions—will not only increase learning but also reduce the need for (and cost of) remediation (which is always expensive). Another long-term outcome is improved teacher morale and less turnover of teachers.

As noted above, I suggest any interested school start with a small pilot for a year and learn from the implementation, compile data, and gain parental (and student) feedback and support. It’s always easier to build upon success.

But why do you need both TOPS and CHESS? To create synergy!

The CHESS approach is developmental and daily; communication and problem-solving skills are taught and used every day. And if a child is sent to the TOPS room, the skills used and reflection of feelings there will be consistent and the same. Recall that if a child must be sent to the TOPS room, the class norms (not just the middle class teacher’s norms) have been disrespected when this happens. Offenders want to rejoin the class in which they feel respected, not ostracized. They also learn what a plan is and—this is critical—there’s often little planning in poverty. Students learn how to plan and generate alternatives and possible consequences of their actions.

In summary, out-of-school suspensions are pervasive, punitive, expensive, and obviously are not working to change behavior. We cannot suspend ourselves into what we want public schools to be for all students. It’s time to look at how to teach responsibility skills (problem-solving and communicating) as a viable alternative to most suspensions; time to give teachers the tools to build responsibility in all their students; time to spend a few minutes a day to teach strategies and foster positive student interaction among all students; time to admit too many students at home are not learning to learn from their mistakes.

I have briefly outlined two interrelated ways that students from poverty can experience positive relationships with the teacher and classmates and build community in their classrooms. When serious misbehavior occurs, students will be listened to and guided to make a plan they are responsible for implementing in the classroom. Except for extreme misbehavior, the need for out-of-school suspensions is all but eliminated.

Of course, there is a place for out-of-school suspensions as a last resort, and tutoring can make a difference with weak/missing academic skills. But what schools with high-poverty populations are desperate for are students who want to be there—who respond to high expectations with the best they can give.

When a student who used to be in trouble too often, who was even suspended out of school, learns how to solve communication problems with others, learns how to learn from mistakes, realizes that school is a place to feel good about, and sees there’s a reason to follow the rules and work hard every day, then that student is truly on the Road to Responsibility.

I wonder what the cost of implementing these preventive practices would be in comparison with all the thousands of dollars and hours spent on remediation?


Dave Burgess is an independent educational consultant in Richmond, VA. He is an adjunct professor for the University of Richmond and a university supervisor for James Madison University. Before retiring, Dave served as a Title I elementary school principal in Henrico County (VA) public schools for 17 years; during the last 12 years of his tenure his school attained and maintained full state accreditation.

Before serving as a principal, Dave was the school counseling program specialist for the Virginia Department of Education, and before that he served as a school counselor and teacher in the public schools of Virginia and Florida. As a school counselor in Henrico County Schools, he introduced the Friendly Helper Peer Facilitation program to the county schools. As a principal in the same county, his school was a model program for the state of Virginia in the Positive Behavior Intervention Support Program (PBIS). He may be reached at via email or on LinkedIn.