All too often, educators have the best of intentions in supporting student behavior and increasing equity in their schools. Yet, we need more than intentions. In our recent publication “Good Intentions Are Not Enough: Centering Equity in School Discipline Reform,” my co-authors and I point to a systemic problem in how challenging behavior is perceived, reinforced, and addressed. Sending students out of classrooms and schools remains a “go to” response for many schools. Suspended students lose valuable instructional time. Being excluded from school can catalyze worse outcomes, including drop out and arrest.
The dual pandemics of COVID-19 and racism underscore concerns that racial disparities in school discipline will widen over the coming years. This will likely occur if educators take a reactive and punitive approach to students “acting out” their grief, loss, and racial trauma. Spanning the last three decades, studies have shown that suspensions are not meted out evenly across student groups. African-American students, Native American students, and students with disabilities receive disproportionate exclusionary discipline relative to their peers. Ultimately, disparities in discipline reflect and reinforce institutionalized racism and marginalization of students.
Well-intentioned discipline reforms are widespread throughout the nation. Schools are implementing Schoolwide Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (SWPBIS), social and emotional learning (SEL), and restorative practices (RP)—separately and in combination. Each of these initiatives hold promise:
- SWPBIS: Reducing reprimands and praising positive behavior may reduce the fraying of trust and relationships among marginalized students and educators.
- SEL: Increasing the social-emotional competencies of both students and adults may increase social awareness among diverse groups and foster perspective-taking about structural inequalities and racism.
- RP: Building community, strengthening relationships, and repairing harm may increase belonging and reduce exclusionary discipline.
In “Good Intentions Are Not Enough,” we point out that the promise of these approaches to eradicate disparities will not be realized if equity is not at the center of efforts. School discipline reform is often implemented without addressing existing structural and cultural factors that undermine and contribute to the replication of inequity. Centering equity in school discipline reform asks educators to boldly:
1) Recognize and confront sociohistorical and structural conditions of oppression.
Schools are impacted by the continuing legacy of racialized violence that relies on racial/ethnic stereotypes. Stereotypes can justify, normalize, and perpetuate criminalizing interactions and structures in schools. A perceived threat to white majority status quo can lead to punitive discipline practices and tactics for social control (e.g., surveillance) in communities and schools with high percentages of people of color. Discipline reforms play a pivotal role in disrupting the school-to-prison pipeline and offering access to supportive SEL-oriented school environments for youth who are criminalized.
2) Incorporate cultural relevancy/responsiveness, competence, and bias awareness.
Rituals, policies, and institutionalized processes can contribute to disconnects and adversities that fray the bonds between culturally and linguistically diverse students and their schools. Cultural well-being and inclusion need to be actively nurtured. For example, students need opportunities for self-reflection and sharing about their lives and society. Recognizing and building upon students’ cultural resources can increase a sense of belonging, engagement, and interconnection among students and their educators—a key way to prevent destructive conflict from arising in the first place.
3) Integrate complementary approaches to develop social-emotional and behavioral competencies.
Environmental stress, trauma, and adversities impact students. All too often, supports are inadequate and implemented in a disconnected manner—especially within under-resourced schools serving low-income neighborhoods. In response, schools are striving for integrated, coordinated, and tailored supports to strengthen students’ coping and problem-solving skills. They are moving beyond narrow programming and blending SEL, reinforcement of positive behavior, and a focus on strengthening adult-student relationships.
4) Implement instructional reforms that address opportunity gaps.
Access to rigor and motivating conditions for learning needs to go hand in hand with relational, SEL, and behavioral supports. When students do not experience safety, belonging, and engaging instruction, they are less likely to invest in community and repairing harm. As such, efforts to eradicate opportunity gaps and discipline gaps should be interconnected.
Now more than ever, we need to center equity in our discipline processes. It is time to double down and build inclusive, equitable communities that value academic engagement and foster trusting, supportive relationships.
Anne Gregory, Ph.D. is a professor in School Psychology at Rutgers University. Dr. Gregory is driven by an urgency to eradicate racial and gender disparities in discipline. She examines restorative practices and equity-oriented social and emotional learning.
The views in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of CASEL.