FARGO — In the region and nationally, schools have become creative in the ways they handle discipline and behavior needs.

With behavior issues on the rise and changing discipline policies, schools are employing alternative discipline using social-emotional curriculum and mindfulness through meditation, yoga and conflict-resolution programs.

These models revolve around strong relationships between teachers and students and aim to help students regulate their emotions and solve their own problems. Schools claim success in behavior, academics and attendance.

The Fargo School District currently employs 77 support staff to help address behavior. The West Fargo School District has also hired additional staff and implemented restorative justice circles.

But do these alternative measures work?

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Students' changing needs

Behavior issues stem from a multitude of reasons. However, studies show that students today are more likely to experience trauma and have mental health needs, increasing the likelihood of classroom disruptions and behavioral issues.

In a classroom of 20, one or two students on average will be dealing with serious psycho-social stressors relating to poverty, domestic violence, abuse and neglect, or a psychiatric disorder, according to the Child Mind Institute.

This type of stress can shorten periods of brain development and limit brain growth in early years, making it harder for students to regulate emotions and concentrate on learning.

And while schools can’t control students’ experiences outside the classroom, they can help students learn how to cope with stress and regulate emotional outbursts. Social-emotional curriculum aims to help students recognize and deal with emotions and tackle the increased presence of stress and trauma.

Yoga and meditation

Students at Coleman Elementary in Baltimore start and end each day with 15-minutes of guided meditation. Through the loudspeaker, the principal guides students in deep breathing activities.

Students can practice yoga during and after school, as well, and disruptive students are sent to “mindfulness rooms” to practice breathing and engage in a discussion with a counselor on how to manage their emotions.

Getty Images / Special to The Forum
Getty Images / Special to The Forum

San Francisco schools practice their own type of meditation, branded "Quiet Time." Schools implemented the program after behavior issues were at an all-time high, and counseling and peer support failed to address the issue. The number of suspensions fell by 45% in Visitacion Valley Middle School after the first year of the program, according to the news website SFGate.

In Denver, students at Doull Elementary are sent to after-school yoga instead of detention. Students leave the yoga session with strategies that help them identify anger in their bodies and help regulate their emotions. Administration said rates of detention have dropped since implementing the program.

Restorative justice

Like in West Fargo, restorative justice models are also popular among schools.

In these settings, low-level offenses can be redirected to a committee made up of student mediators, administrators and teachers. The goal is to provide a non-confrontational space for students to talk through their behavior and make amends with those affected by the conflict. Schools that have implemented restorative justice report dramatic declines in school-discipline problems, according to reports from The Atlantic.

Does it work?

Research on the effectiveness of mindfulness in schools is minimal. A few scientific studies back up the claims, but because the practices differ so widely, it’s difficult to gauge the overall effectiveness, according to journalist Brian Resnick with Vox in an investigation on mindfulness in classrooms.

Most evidence comes from schools that have implemented the programs and report lower suspension rates and higher attendance and student performance.

However, many parents say schools should include more social and emotional development, according to a 2019 Gallup poll.

Of surveyed adults, 90% said they thought schools should increase efforts to foster a positive school environment, and 86% said schools should focus on social and emotional development to address behavior.

A little more than half said stricter disciplinary practices, such as more detentions, suspensions or expulsions, would be equally effective in tackling behavior.

Alternative schools

Separate and alternative schools across the country also aim to address students' academic, behavioral and emotional needs.

The Area Learning Center of Fergus Falls, Minn., has used social-emotional curriculum since 1982.

The high school uses five specific tactics to address student behavior and mental health, including meditation, journaling, cognitive therapy and movement techniques. The school also includes mentoring, hands-on lessons and special hall passes for students having a difficult day.

“It’s about giving students a supportive environment,” Kristin Tuel, director of the center, told The Forum.

The Karner Blue Education Center in Blaine, Minn., serves K-8 students with behavioral and autism spectrum disorders, as well as students with developmental delays. The school uses natural and therapeutic lighting, classrooms free of environmental noise and flexible learning spaces for small group and one-on-one instruction.

Specialized staff and a 4-to-1 student to teacher ratio provide individual attention to help address anxiety in students and help teach students skills to transfer back to traditional schools.

Atlanta’s failed model

Not all nontraditional methods and alternative schools work, however.

The U.S. Department of Justice found that two dozen alternative placement schools in Georgia violated the Americans with Disabilities Act, which requires that students with disabilities be educated with non-disabled peers.

Many special education students with behavioral issues were sent to Georgia’s Network for Educational and Therapeutic Support schools with promises of additional services and supports.

However, these students were housed in subpar conditions. The Justice Department found the schools were “prison-like,” dirty and lacked basic necessities, like music and art classes, playgrounds, libraries and cafeterias. Students often took computer-based courses supervised by teaching aides. Some students were placed in the schools after a specific behavioral issue.

The schools are still open, and a lawsuit is ongoing.