02/15/2012 11:47 am ET | Updated Apr 16, 2012

Suspended Disbelief

School has always taught children much more than what's in their textbooks. The early grades especially are a time when children learn not just how to read and write, but also to follow directions, work in groups and learn from others. A growing body of research supports the common sense proposition that children with strong social and emotional capacity do better in school.

Recognizing this important truth, the District of Columbia Public Schools has implemented Tools of the Mind, an incredibly effective program in more than 150 DCPS classrooms. It's a research-based program that focuses on building "self-regulation skills" which lead to school readiness and later school success. Last year's pilot was successful enough for a major expansion which allows many more D.C. children the opportunity to gain these skills.

But not everyone has gotten the message that socio-emotional skills are a key component to academic success. Monday's front page story in The Washington Post by Donna St. George focused on a troubling phenomenon: the high rate of elementary school suspensions. Understandably, many people commenting on the piece find it hard to believe this form of discipline is used so often with children so young.

It's hard to imagine suspending a 4-year-old for any reason. It's harder still to imagine sending him home for things you might expect a 4-year-old to do -- like getting cranky, crying and kicking off his shoes. It's almost impossible to imagine sending him home for this behavior multiple times in a single school year. But that's what happened to the youngest son of Rajuawn Thompkins, a Children's Law Center client featured in Donna's story. Sadly, suspending elementary school students has become a common practice. As the story explains, Rajuawn's son was one of 50 pre-kindergartners and more than 6,000 elementary students suspended from area schools last year.

My view on this is simple, as I told Donna: It is never the right answer to suspend an elementary-age child.

Of course, if a child's behavior disrupts class, she may need to go to the principal's office. This allows other students to continue learning. But the principal, or other school staff, need to ask why the child is misbehaving. That's one of the questions we ask each time we meet a client.

The answers we've heard are heartbreaking: a fourth grader who thinks he's stupid because his undiagnosed dyslexia means he can't read even a single word, a second grader who stays in a homeless shelter and is too scared to sleep at night, a kindergartener whose family ran out of food stamps before the end of the month and is too hungry to pay attention. Unable to concentrate at school with their basic needs unmet, elementary school-aged children may act out in a way that disrupts their classroom environment. But suspensions don't feed a hungry child, give a tired child a good night's sleep or teach a dyslexic child to read.

Out-of-school suspensions should not be among the discipline options available to elementary schools. I raised the issue of school discipline in a DC Council hearing last week and encouraged the Office of the State Superintendent of Education to improve oversight of schools. I know the District can educate its students without suspending them. Rajuawn Thompkins transferred her son to a new school this year for kindergarten, and he's doing great -- he hasn't been suspended once.