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Is School-Discipline Reform Moving Too Fast?

January 11, 2018
Wayne D'Orio
The Atlantic

One of the more radical transformations in public education today begins with a simple greeting each morning among second-graders.

“Good morning, Mahlet,” says one student to another at McMicken Heights Elementary School in SeaTac, Washington. “Good morning, Liliana,” the second student responds.

The exercise continues briskly until all 23 students seated in a circle have been recognized; then the children stand and greet three classmates each with handshakes and solid eye contact. Next, a handful of students are chosen to ask questions of their peers. While the query can be basic, such as “What kinds of movies do you like?,” some of the seven-year-olds struggle to formulate a question and ask it with a strong voice. “I’m not comfortable with that question,” one girl says after she receives a vague inquiry about her feelings. When another student is asked about her favorite color, she politely says, “Can you ask me a harder question?”

This activity, part of a Yale-designed program to build students’ social skills, usually runs for at least 20 minutes each day in all 18 elementary schools in Highline Public Schools, a racially diverse district just south of Seattle.

“Teachers say, ‘I know more about my students than ever before,’” says Alexandria Haas, the principal of this pre-K-6 school. And that knowledge, she believes—combined with new strategies to help students regulate their emotions—has contributed to a 43 percent drop in the number of children referred for discipline from 2014 to 2016, according to school data.