12/01/2014 04:20 pm ET Updated Jan 31, 2015

Getting School Discipline Right by Attending to "Non-Cognitive" Skills

Parents know that when their kids are hungry, tired, or just stressed out, they aren't on their best behavior. Good teachers also understand this. Unfortunately, "zero-tolerance" discipline policies - which can treat chewing gum or talking back as akin to bringing a weapon to school - do not.

As these policies increasingly become the norm across states and districts, more schools are responding to tardiness with out-of-school suspensions. A fight in the hallway that would previously have resulted in detention and a call to the student's parents can now trigger a call to the police instead. A growing number of students who lack another outlet for anxiety related to violence at home, or not having a home at all, are ending up in juvenile correction facilities.

These practices do not make schools safer - chronically absent and sassy students pose no real threat to others - and they certainly do not boost the achievement or graduation rates of students already most at risk of disengagement. In fact, research documents that such policies are often racially discriminatory, and that they are doing serious damage. Getting school discipline right requires addressing the root cause of the problem - students' weak non-cognitive skills.

Large income- and race-based gaps in reading and math at kindergarten entry are mirrored by similar gaps in such non-cognitive skills as self-control and effective communication with peers and teachers. And, like their struggles to gain ground in literacy and arithmetic, disadvantaged children's capacity to focus on the task at hand or to resolve disputes productively is impeded by many of the same poverty-related factors. Going without breakfast makes it hard to concentrate and, thus, to grasp key math concepts being taught. The unique stresses of growing up in poor households and isolated neighborhoods - such as unstable living conditions and exposure to violence - pile on the "Adverse Childhood Experiences" that both challenge reading at grade level and lead kids to act out in school. Moreover, these experiences become toxically damaging when strong supports to counter them are not in place.

As New York University Education Professor Pedro Noguera reports, "Students who are behind academically, who are more likely to be students of color, are also more likely to engage in disruptive behavior, sometimes out of frustration or embarrassment. Children who suffer from abuse or neglect at home or who are harassed and teased by their peers are also more likely to misbehave." And recent data from the US Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights confirms those concerns:

African-American students without disabilities are more than three times as likely as their white peers without disabilities to be expelled or suspended. Although African-American students represent 15% of students in the [Civil Rights Data Collection], they make up 35% of students suspended once, 44% of those suspended more than once, and 36% of students expelled. Further, over 50% of students who were involved in school-related arrests or referred to law enforcement are Hispanic or African-American. (emphasis added)

In other words, schools are meting out zero-tolerance responses to the very students most in need of support to develop critical skills, but least likely to receive it. Whether we call them "soft," "behavioral," or "life skills," helping students develop these traits is critical to helping them succeed not only in school, but beyond it.

As former New York Times education writer Paul Tough documents in How Children Succeed, schools' failure to attend to noncognitive skills, which is a reflection of policies that ignore their importance, is a recipe for disaster. And while he explores the unique challenges wealthy students experience to attaining "grit," Tough sees weak noncognitive skills as particularly problematic for our most vulnerable students, who constitute a large and growing minority.

Indeed, current efforts to improve U.S. students' reading, math, and STEM skills are directly impeded by our failure to nurture those students' abilities to think critically, resolve problems in a productive manner, and persevere when the task is challenging. Trying to boost cognitive skills without attending to non-cognitive skills that enable them is akin to starting construction on a house without first laying a foundation.

Even more important, ensuring strong non-cognitive skills is key to developing our country's next generation of productive workers, good neighbors, and engaged citizens. At a time when the global economy puts a premium on the ability to create, collaborate, and communicate; when we are paying exorbitant sums to put non-violent offenders behind bars and keeping them out of the productive workforce; and when plummeting rates of voting and civic participation pose a serious threat to the future of our democracy, we can no longer afford to neglect these skills that are critical to academic, and life, success.

The shift toward restorative justice and similarly supports-based disciplinary policies is encouraging. We must build on that momentum to make nurturing non-cognitive skills a core component of policy, rather than the afterthought it currently is. Failing to do so threatens not only our schools, but the future of our entire society.