How our mindfulness program reduced our suspension rate by 50%

Five years ago, my school was one of the middle schools with the highest number of suspensions in the county. I know data demonstrates that suspensions just aren’t effective  for students, and as a principal I’ve seen it firsthand, too. When a student is repeatedly suspended, it’s easy for them to feel unwanted at school, which makes it harder for them to come back. When they do return, it’s easy for them to feel unsupported, which makes it harder for them to manage school expectations and avoid more suspensions. That’s why I want to share my school’s approach to supporting student behavior: After about a year of being really intentional with our mindfulness program, we reduced our suspensions by 50%.

When I joined my school in 2020, I loved how my new team already had a plan to reduce suspensions: grant-funded teacher training to provide mindfulness and emotional regulation strategies for students. But COVID closed school doors and limited the program’s early stages. When our kids returned in 2021, they were carrying a lot of stress and trauma. Students felt overwhelmed trying to reacclimate to in-person learning, and sometimes, our teachers felt overwhelmed trying to support them. This probably sounds familiar to you – so here are two steps that worked for us:

1. We support students with a mindfulness elective course.

Our students wanted to be back in the comfort zone of their pre-pandemic classrooms and connections. Instead, they had new class schedules, new teachers – and for our younger students, a whole new middle school building. Teachers noticed our sixth-graders felt like they still had fourth-grade scores to settle. Volatile situations prompted me to suspend students, sometimes regularly, until we were almost back up to our pre-COVID suspension rate. 

2. We support teachers with a mindfulness PD program.

When students are struggling to stay inside behavioral boundaries, they need to know we still believe in them – so we always want to make it possible for them to stay inside their classrooms. We used COVID relief funding to train educators in mindfulness-based teaching techniques, and pay them a stipend, too. Educators used that funding to build SEL supports into their classrooms, such as “self-break” calming corners. Now, when students feel overwhelmed or can’t focus, our teachers are more equipped to provide in-class support – and to teach kids to recognize and understand their feelings. They teach students to proactively move to the self-break corner, reset and rejoin the learning when they feel calm. 

I want to add a very honest tip about suggesting mindfulness-based PD to your team: Not every educator will be on board immediately. Some teachers may feel like they’re already using their tools to tackle student behavior challenges, and that they need the support of a punitive escalation process, not a new tool. Instead of pushing for an instant mindshift, I invited other teachers with more bandwidth to try the PD and report back. Over time, their experiences and outcomes always tell a compelling story for their colleagues. For example, some teachers saw that a morning mindfulness exercise helped students focus on learning for the first 45 minutes. Now, when the second bell rings and kids are seated, all our teachers start class with grounding exercises, schoolwide.

With this program, we’re doing more than keeping suspensions down: We’re fostering a school culture where students feel understood and educators feel equipped. I’m so proud of what my staff and students have achieved together! Guided by our mindfulness teacher leader, we even wrote a pilot curriculum to share with fellow schools and districts, and it was approved by the Board of Education.

If you’re thinking of trying this to support your staff and students, the key to making it work is staying intentional. Keep it in the forefront of student experience and teacher practice. Promote accountability and patience. I hope you’ll reach out to me with any questions!