Changing Perspectives on Alternative Schooling for Children and Adolescents With Challenging Behavior

January 5, 2007

By Gable, Robert A; Bullock, Lyndal M; Evans, William H


There is increasing evidence that a mismatch exists between the structure of the schools and the cultural, social, and linguistic background of some segments of the school-aged population. This mismatch is often exemplified in the academic and behavioral expectations and performance of some students. In this article, the authors discuss the reciprocal nature and effect that learning and behavioral problems have on students. Next, the authors highlight selected programs that have impacted the course of intervention programs for children and youth. Characteristics that distinguish current alternative programs for students and variables that appear essential to qualify programming are presented. Last, the authors encourage more communication and interaction between researchers and practitioners concerning critical issues related to alternative schooling.

KEY WORDS: alternative schools, corrections, discipline, involuntary placement, mental health, remediation

OVER TIME, VARIOUS SOCIAL, political, and economic forces have produced major changes in our system of public education. In the early stages of education, schools were simply expected to give children access to an education (Van Acker, 2004). Instruction focused mainly on the rote learning of core academic subjects, whereas classroom discipline served primarily as a way to keep children in line (Katz, 1972). Many teachers relied on harsh disciplinary practices that included shame, humiliation, and corporal punishment. The goal was to generate compliance, conformity, and respect for authority among children who, once they completed their schooling, could easily be assimilated into a burgeoning workforce (e.g., Ysseldyke & Algozzine, 1990).

Katz (1972) identifies four separate initiatives that differed according to ownership, control, and the role of education in the larger society in his account of the emergence of public schooling in America. In the end, Katz asserts that incipient bureaucracy triumphed in a system in which education, morality, and docility were combined to define a properly educated citizen. Critics of our present education system might understandably claim that some things have not changed significantly in 200 years. Indeed, current discipline policies appear to mirror earlier practices. As in the past, a common response today to disruptive classroom behavior is the imposition of an aversive consequence (Colvin, Sugai, & Kameenui, 1999; Skiba & Peterson, 2000, 2003; Witt, 1986). Figures show that a zero tolerance attitude regarding student misbehavior has lead to a substantial increase in the number of students annually suspended or expelled from public schools (Skiba & Peterson, 2003). Unfortunately, for some youngsters, misbehavior is the first step on the slippery slope that leads to more restrictive placement (e.g., detention centers, correctional facilities, treatment programs).

In the following article, we examine some of the major issues surrounding children and adolescents who fail to behave acceptably in school. First, we discuss the reciprocal nature and deleterious effects that learning and behavior problems have on students. We focus attention on discipline in schools and the impact of various practices on student outcomes. Next, we highlight programs that, beginning in the late 1940s through the early 1970s, dramatically altered the course of education and treatment of children and adolescents with challenging behavior. Then, we identify characteristics that distinguish current alternative programs for children and youth and variables that appear essential to quality programming. Finally, we encourage researchers to talk more to practitioners and vice versa about critical issues that relate to alternative schooling.

The Changing Scene in Public Education

A mismatch exists between the structure of schools and the cultural, social, and linguistic background of some segments of the student population. Even so, the present school-age population is more culturally and linguistically diverse than ever before. The readiness gap is growing, whereby an increasing number of young children come to school ill-prepared to succeed in a traditional classroom milieu. Those same children who do not do well when they begin their schooling frequently evidence learning and behavior problems across the elementary school years. These behavior problems are exacerbated by exposure to inconsistent and largely punitive classroom management strategies. Left untreated, student problems multiply, diversify, and intensify which, in turn, increases the probability that school personnel will seek to remove the student from the regular classroom (Skiba & Peterson, 2000, 2003).

Students who experience repeated academic frustration and failure are more likely to exhibit behavior problems, many of which are escape motivated. Students who are unable to participate successfully in daily classroom instruction look for ways to escape what they perceive as a highly aversive situation (Gable, 2004; Shores, Gunter, & Jacks, 1993). The inordinate amount of attention given to pupil compliance rather than teacher accommodations compounds the problem and increases significantly the probability of academic difficulties (e.g., Zigmond, 2000).

Discipline in schools. Students faced with repeated academic failure often engage in noncompliant or acting-out behavior to protect themselves from the constant drubbing associated with a negative learning environment. The noncompliant behavior triggers predictably an office referral, in-school or out-of-school suspension, failing grades, and grade retention; for many students, a growing sense of alienation and despair causes them to drop out of school. Many students suffer this fate; however, students variously labeled emotionally disturbed, emotionally handicapped, and behaviorally disordered are disproportionately affected (Gable, 2004). As one principal said, “you don’t get it… we don’t want to understand these kids; we want to get them out” (Skiba & Peterson, 2000, p. 340). It is not surprising that, the drop-out rate among students with disabilities is nearly twice that of the general education population. Of those students who fail to complete a high school education, nearly 60% are labeled emotionally disturbed (Blackorby & Wagner, 1996). Steinberg and Knitzer’s (1992) blunt assessment that our system of public education is miserably failing these students’ captures well the untenable position in which many children and youth find themselves. Unfortunately, failure to properly educate these youngsters seems to be an acceptable option.

Emergence of alternative education programs. One of the earliest references to the role of education in addressing the needs of children and adolescents with challenging behavior appeared in 1925, in a book entitled Wayward Youth by August Aichhorn. About that time, school boards across the United States began to explore different approaches to providing an education to high-risk students, some of whom had already dropped out of school (Fitzsimmons Hughes, Baker, Criste, Huffty, Link, Roberts, Snipes, Valore, Ware, Xander, 2006; Lange & Sletten, 2002). For example, in 1946, the New York City School Board established the 600 schools for children with emotional disturbances (Berkowitz & Rothman, 1967). In the early 1950s, Kornberg established Hawthorne-Cedar Knolls School and Fenichel started the League School, in Brooklyn, NY, in attempts to keep children with severe emotional problems in the community by substituting day treatment for hospitalization (Knoblock, 1966). At about the same time, Redl and Wineman (1952) established Pioneer House in Detroit, MI, to serve troubled adolescents from which emerged the life-space interview. In the early 1960s, Hobbs and his colleagues established Project Re-ED (Bullock, 2004; Hobbs, 1965). In Project Re-ED, emphasis was on mental healthnot mental illness and on the present-not the past. Another alternative school, Croton- on-Campus program, was established in a housing project in Syracuse, NY and served a predominantly urban student population (Knoblock, 1966). Viewed together, these efforts to provide alternative schooling signaled a major shift in philosophy, as each of these programs put emphasis on education as a way to directly influence the life circumstances of troubled children and youth.

One might argue that enactment of the Education of All Handicapped Children Act (Public Law 94-142), in 1975, slowed the development of innovative programs-especially for students with challenging behavior. With this landmark legislation, federal dollars were appropriated to support breath rather than depth of services for children identified with a range of mild to severe disabilities. Recent legislation may be having an adverse effect on alternative programs as well. With the institution of the No Child Left Behind Act (2001), programs that once operated autonomously now are being subjected to increased external control.

Today, alternative education occupies a position o\f increased acceptability and respectability. As Fitzsimmons Hughes et al. (2006) assert, mounting recognition of the legitimate role of alternative schools is attributable, at least in part, to recent federal legislation. Both the No Child Left Behind Act and the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (2004) call into question the longstanding practice of suspension and expulsion of students who engage in disruptive classroom behavior and both substitute language that places importance on “expel but educate” (Fitzsimmons Hughes et al., 2006). At a legislative level, alternative schools are no longer dumping grounds for those students who exhibit norm-violating behavior that prohibits them (or others) from reaching academic and social success (Fuller & Sabatino, 1996). Even so, the tremendous pressure associated with high stakes standards-based testing has lead some school officials to push out low performers and troublemakers-including students from diverse ethnic, racial, and socioeconomic backgrounds (e.g., Lehr & Lange, 2003; Skiba & Peterson, 2000, 2003; Townsend, 2000).

Over time, there has been a significant increase in the number of alterative schools. This increase includes: charter schools; court schools; detention schools; magnet schools; day treatment and educational centers; residential schools; schools-without-walls; alternative learning centers; and second chance schools, to mention a few (Fitzsimmons Hughes et al., 2006; Quinn & Rutherford, 1998). The clientele run the gamut from students identified as gifted and talented to students that have engaged in multiple acts of aggression.

Estimates regarding the number of alternative programs for children and youth vary widely, ranging from 10,900-20,000 (cf. Kleiner, Porch, & Farris, 2002; Lehr & Lange, 2003). Conservatively speaking, these alternative schools serve well over 600,000′students. That number does not include the 20,000 adolescents that desperate parents and exasperated judges annually place in so-called “tough love” programs (Tough Love Programs, 2006, p. 12). Nor do we know how many other programs function as “interim alternative educational settings” (IAES) as school divisions seek to meet requirements regarding students with disabilities subjected to disciplinary actions pursuant to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (Peterson & Smith, 2002).

Characteristics of alternative schools. Notwithstanding their growing popularity, little unanimity is apparent regarding what constitutes an alternative school. Raywid (1994) discussed three types of alternative programs. One type was an innovative school, designed to be more humane, challenging, and engaging than the traditional education programs. The second type of alternative program represents last chance schools to which students are assigned or sentenced. Usually, these programs constitute one last chance before student expulsion and placement in a more restrictive setting. The third type is the remedial school that is intended for those students in need of academic and social or emotional remediation or rehabilitation. Remedial schools reflect the belief that, with proper treatment, students would be able to be reintegrated into mainstream educational settings. Quinn and Rutherford (1998) posit that innovative schools are committed to adapting to the individual needs of the students, whereas last chance and remedial schools seek to “fix the student who is broken” (p. 16). According to Lehr and Lange (2003), during the 1980s, alternative programs mainly focused on remediation, whereas the political climate of 1990s rekindled interest in programs for chronically disruptive children and youth and those suspended or expelled from school.

Fitzsimons Hughes and her colleagues (2006) recently sought to distinguish among alternative educational programs and identified three different types of settings, each of which serves a specific population of children and youth. Type 1 settings mainly serve gifted or advanced students, special education students, students who have engaged in substance abuse (e.g., alcohol, tobacco, or drugs), students who are pregnant, and students with a history of truancy. Type 2 settings primarily serve students, on a short-term basis, that pose serious discipline problems. Many times, these students with discipline problems are court-mandated to attend these schools due to serious behavioral infractions that occurred in their home school. Last, Type 3 settings are designed to be therapeutic in nature and to serve children and adolescents that have been diagnosed as having serious emotional or behavioral problems. Given the disparate philosophical and programmatic emphasis of these programs, both the motive behind placement and the subsequent impact on students’ attitude and behavior is likely very different (Lehr & Lange, 2003).

Quinn and Rutherford (1998) identified six components they judged essential to quality alternative programs. These components include: (a) procedures for conducting functional assessment of academic and nonacademic behavior; (b) flexible curriculum that places emphasis on functional academic, social, and daily living skills; (c) effective and efficient instructional strategies; (d) transition programs and procedures that link the alternative program to mainstream educational settings and the larger community; (e) comprehensive systems for providing students both internal alternative educational services and external community-based services and lastly; (f) appropriate staff and adequate resources to serve students with disabilities. Similarly, Fitzsimons Hughes et al. (2006) singled out six core characteristics that distinguish alternative programs from more traditional educational programs. These characteristics include: (a) a comprehensive student evaluation and referral system; (b) an educational program that is aligned with student real-world expectations and that reflects various nontraditional teaching and learning options; (c) programming that promotes social, emotional, and behavioral change within a safe, positive and nonpunitive environment; (d) ongoing staff training and development; (e) polices and practices that support student transition from a more to a less restrictive environment (e.g., mainstream campus, job placement, alternative educational setting) and finally; (f) ongoing program evaluation and data based decision making.

A significant overlap is evident between characteristics identified by Fitzsimons Hughes and her colleagues (2006) and Quinn and Rutherford (1998). In addition, few would dispute the legitimacy of any of these attributes. However, the dearth of wide scale investigations of some of these variables represents a major obstacle to the growth of quality alternative programs.

Obstacles to research on alternative schooling. One obstacle to ensuring children and youth quality services is that few empirical studies have been conducted that squarely address the question of what constitutes quality alternative schooling. Researchers have mainly examined student satisfaction and self-esteem; others have shared anecdotal reports on efforts to serve children and youth in alternative settings (Lehr & Lange, 2003). One of the challenges to conducting rigorous research stems from the fact that alternative programs serve extremely homogeneous populations of children and youth in extremely diverse settings. Furthermore, alternative schools serve especially ideographic functions. Students enrolled voluntarily in a remedial day school program may bear little resemblance to adjudicated delinquents in a secure facility. Research conducted in the former setting would have limited applicability in the latter facility. Another challenge relates to the fact that daily demands associated with program operation pose myriad challenges, some of which may be at odds with research designed to “capture the richness of what some alternative programs offer” (Lahr & Lange, 2003, p. 63). Finally, longstanding evidence shows that changes in the child or adolescent and in the environment to which the child or adolescent returns influences the level of adjustment to home and community (Lewis, 1982; 1988). That incongruous reality can pose a problem for conducting outcome-based studies on alternative educational programs.


Paraphrasing language of a recent Carnegie Foundation report (2005), alternative education is no place for modest ambitions. For children or adolescents placed in alternative settings, time is unforgiving (Sugai, 1998) as their number of positive life changes diminish daily. If educators and administrators, and other concerned professionals are to better serve this population of children and youth, we must (a) examine critically the current practices, (b) discard those practices for which no empirical evidence exists to support their efficacy, and (c) replace these practices with what works. Given the limited amount of empirical research available to educators, administrators, and all the other varying individuals involved with the care of these children, the need exists to draw upon a mix of expert opinion and research that has been conducted on comparable populations of students and then engage in systematic replication efforts to substantiate their worth in alternative settings. However, striving to fill the void as it relates to empirical research we must not lose sight of Hobb’s (1965) contention that trust is the glue that holds the teaching and learning process together. As Quinn and her colleagues report (2006), the nature of the relationship between adults and the children and adolescents in their care is absolutely essential to realizing the positive outcomes all of us in this field have dedicated ourselves to achieving.


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Robert A. Gable, an Executive Editor of Preventing School Failure, is a professor and Eminent Scholar in the Department of Early Childhood, Speech-Language Pathology, and Special Education Darden College of Education at Old Dominion University, Norfolk, Virginia. Lyndal M. Bullock is regents professor in the Department of Special Education at the University of North Texas, Denton. William H. Evans, an Executive Editor of Preventing School Failure, is professor in the Division of Teacher Education at the University of West Florida. Copyright 2006 Heldref Publications

Copyright Heldref Publications Fall 2006

(c) 2006 Preventing School Failure. Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning. All rights Reserved.

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