When Behavior Results in Suspension


"The following Boston Globe article examines the crisis of suspending children in early primary grades...


Suspension is NO solution! 

Yup, there is a mental health crisis all across America that includes young children - many of whom exhibit trauma related behaviors, perhaps related to

  • poverty, homelessness, food insecurity
  • inadequate parenting or in the case described in the article- tired grandparents forced to care for children during their twilight years.
  • neurobiological differences such as autism,  ADHD and poor anger/impulse control. Some of these children are victims of lead poisoning and other environmental injustices.
  • the Pandemic and related lack of academics including using non-evidence-based whole word literacy methods https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2019/06/phonics-not-whole-word-best-teaching-reading/591127/
  • and inadequate personnel such as therapists, nurses, behaviorists, social workers. These all fall into the bucket of underfunding schools and special education, exacerbated by state funding cuts and inflation forcing schools to eliminate services.

According to this article, "School suspensions kept public school kindergarten to third grade students out of classes for nearly 3,000 days last academic year, a massive amount of lost learning that advocates say is contributing to the state's staggering racial and socioeconomic achievement gaps."

In addition, according to the Globe,  "Figures previously obtained by EdLaw, which also supports banning suspensions, showed that in 2018-19, young Black children were over four times more likely to experience exclusionary discipline than white students, and Latino students were nearly three times more likely. Children with disabilities accounted for nearly 50 percent of the early-grade suspensions in 2018-19, and economically disadvantaged children accounted for 75 percent, despite making up 20 and 40 percent of the school population, respectively, according to EdLaw. "

I have read three books recently that make me wonder whether the United States has a poverty industrial complex that is as dependent on poverty as arms manufacturers are dependent on war.

The recent book Madness explains the historical context and relationship of poverty, racism and mental illness impacting the descendents of enslaved African Americans. I was especially fascinated with the story behind Madness by Antonia Hylton because there is mention of occupational therapy treatments that were not exactly what I expected... Please read on....


The second book is written by award winning actress and genius in my humble opinion- Viola Davis.

The type of poverty, and of course, racism that Davis suffered from had huge impact on  her self-esteem and mental health. She did not have access to daily showers, avoided using the bathroom at night due to fears of rodents, her clothes were ragged and too small, she was often hungry and smelled like urine because its difficult to wash one's underwear in the sink and get the odor out when the family has no soap.

Please read on... https://2019.recyclingot.com/no-child-should-ever-suffer-as-viola-davis-has-my-reaction-to-a-brilliant-memoir/

Journalist Andrea Elliot spent years researching, growing close to and trying to understand the impact of poverty on an intelligent, engaging and talented New York City, African American girl who grew up in shelters, always on the brink of poverty. Desani, named after the water company is the Invisible Child.

The book focuses on the obstacles to Desani's success, including her parents drug and alcohol challenges, related arrest records, the social service bureaucratic red tape that requires spending all ridiculous amounts of time on paperwork in order to get food stamps and shelter and frequently accusations of parental neglect.

The biggest message, I walked away with after finishing this lengthy epic is that if society took all the salaries going to educators, special educators, occupational therapy, psychologists, shelters, food banks, foster homes and private schools for troubled youth- all that money could be simply provided to families to bring them out of poverty- This would surely make our society more equitable, safe, educated and happy....

Now Back to poorly behaved students from marginalized communities:

" While suspensions of the youngest students are lower than pre-pandemic years, the sheer numbers of lost days- totally more than 15 school years- underscore the need to ban exclusionary discipline measures in the earliest school grades, said Leon Smith, executive director of Citizens for Justice, which obtained the suspension data from the state through a public records request."

A bill stands before the Massachusetts HOuse that would prohibit the use of suspensions and expulsions on pre-K through Grade 3 students. I assume that this bill will also prevent duct taping them to chairs or arresting them as solutions.

When I worked in the Ipswich Public Schools, there was an angry little boy who was assaultive and dangerous to himself and others. A paraprofessional who happened to also be a social worker spent all day with him- either in a separate office or the back of the classroom when he could handle the auditory and people overstimulation. Now the Ipswich Public Schools (this was 20 years ago) was known for good special education and I am proud to say that they did not suspend him- they provided what he needed in order to control his anger. He was a White child from a troubled background and the community was able to pay for what he needed- even if redistributing the money meant delaying a new roof buying new textbooks....   Poorer communities don't always have these options and in today's economic climate  of inflation and decreased state monies going to communities- it can only be worsening....

What is an occupational therapist to do?

Occupational therapists often evaluate children's sensory-processing skills to better understand what strategies might help a student better attend, learn and yes- behave. We don't always have the solutions because the many societal challenges I have written about are greater than what our magical bag of tricks can fix. We can use trial and error to see if strategies such as the following work:

  1. weighted vest, collar, lap bag or blanket
  2. dynamic seating and movement breaks
  3. A go-to supply of calming, sensory tools to squeeze, roll, pull apart, smell, vibrate, etc.
  4. time spent in a quiet, darkened, padded area with objects that can be thrown removed and 1:1 staff providing calming or educational activities
  5. Music, headphones to block out unwanted sounds
  6. sensory-based repetitive materials that the individual finds calming such as  running rice through fingers, rubbing hands across a mermaid cushion or water play.

According to the Boston Globe article, at a testimonial meeting, a 7 year old boy was discussed. He was living in foster care with his grandmother. " Because of his “trauma history,” he reacted poorly to the noisy environment of his first-grade classroom, yelling, ripping up paper, and running away. Rather than address the reason for his misbehavior, his school suspended him, McIntyre said. "

A calming area may include bags filled with sand and vibrating cushions that are safe to through or hit against oneself, preferably in a padded room with close supervision.

Occupational therapists frequently evaluate children who are sensitive to auditory and other sensory stimulation! Trauma can increase sensory sensitivities and educational settings should address emotional and learning needs whether that sensory processing disorder is originally caused by trauma, poverty, a neurobiological based disorder such as ADHD or all of these - because every child deserves accommodations that meet their needs while also keeping that child and others safe.






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