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Reversing the trend in discipline data disproportionality


The numbers reflecting the disproportionate representation of minority students involved with school disciplinary procedures are staggering. The numbers are so great and disproportionate that the U.S. Secretary of Education in a recent report called for school districts to review their data and take responsibility for remedying the issue by implementing action steps to change this trend. As we looked at the numbers in the report, it seems schools are rich in documentation of these discipline episodes, but seldom take time to really look at the factors that might be contributing to this disproportionality.

What’s often perceived by schools as defiance, insubordination, and disrespect are in actuality sometimes just a lack of clearly defined expectations for behavior and absence of procedures, organization, supervision, and structure for students. The students have not been shown nor allowed time to practice how they are to behave. It is the perception that these students should know how to behave, and these same perceptions are often based on middle class values that some of these children have not experienced. Some educators think minority students are greater represented in disciplinary actions and suspensions because they misbehave more than their peers. The 2012 Office of Civil Rights’ data collection report indicated that is not the case, but rather that minority students are called out for the behaviors more frequently and with more subjectivity.

What is it about teacher behaviors that might be contributing to these disproportionate numbers? How do some frustrated teachers address behavior issues?  On a typical day in classrooms, you might observe teachers who escalate the behavior episode by:

  • resorting to screaming or yelling
  • addressing or attacking the individual and not the behavior
  • responding in a disrespectful manner in turn
  • chastising or punishing the whole class for one student’s behavior causing more students to misbehave or react
  • using sarcasm or other inappropriate language
  • ignoring the behavior and so it continues in other classrooms and among other students
  • letting their biases, prejudices,  and preconceptions of individuals or groups of students impact their responses
  • letting the behavior escalate to a major annoyance before intervening causing more disruption
  • abandoning the instructional plan for the day or period and assigning insignificant seatwork as replacement or time-filler
  • showing inconsistency in responses and reactions – respond sometimes, but not always for the same behavior, respond to some kids but not all, give different  consequences for the same behavior, overreact one day and ignore the next, etc.
  • referring specific students for office referrals for less serious and more subjective  and discretionary reasons
  • failing to take time to recognize the underlying issues that might be causing the behavior
  • experiencing feelings of helplessness that lead to anger and frustration and thus an office referral to have the student removed from the classroom
  • writing multiple referrals for the same students and relying on administrators to change the behavior
  • being at a loss as to what to do to stop the behaviors

These common teacher behaviors remind us it is important to scrutinize adult behaviors and the impact they are having on student behaviors. They are not good practices and seldom if ever improve behavior.

But what else might be causing the numbers of discipline actions, suspensions, and expulsions to be so high and disproportionate for minorities? We need to understand the root causes of the behaviors. Regardless of race, gender, dominant language, special needs, and/or socio-economic status, when we think about misbehavior, most students misbehave because they:

  • are trying to get something
  • are trying to avoid something
  • have not been taught appropriate behavior skills or expectations for behavior
  • lack a good role model for appropriate behavior and social skills
  • have been in trouble so much they feel like no one likes them or they are never good enough
  • feel powerless
  • have been purposely pushed to the edge where they are almost expected to react in an aggressive or intimidating manner
  • seek revenge for prior maltreatment
  • get mixed messages from multiple teachers on expectations
  • recognize that expectations and consequences are inconsistently applied  – in different settings, at different times of day, by various teachers, dependent on who’s involved, etc.
  • have not learned expected classroom procedures and routines
  • were not given time to model, practice, and demonstrate the skills
  • are not positively reinforced for good or improved behavior
  • desire the attention even in negative form
  • have undiagnosed learning, emotional, or behavioral disabilities
  • are causing distractions to hide their learning deficiencies

One of the most important aspects of classroom management and a reduction in student referrals for discipline offenses is the teacher’s behavior in response to the student’s behavior and his/her perception of what is causing the student’s behavior. Often teachers over rely on reactive or punishment strategies over thoughtful reasoning and planned preventive and positive intervening approaches to address classroom discipline issues.  If the teacher constantly punishes the same students for multiple minor behaviors, those students will continue the behavior because they feel it does not matter what they do; the teacher is going to react negatively. Students are perceptive of favoritism and often view their teachers as arbitrarily applying rules to exercise or regain control of the classroom. Students can equally tell when a teacher doesn’t care for a certain student or group of students. The teacher’s body language, tone, and inflection are hard to mask. The communication style and differences between the teacher and the student cause situations to escalate in hostility and aggression. We have to ask ourselves, “Are we overusing suspension and removal as a means to gain control and power back?”


It is also important for the teacher to monitor any negative preconceptions, feelings, or emotions related to students. Students are also perceptive of teachers who are not interested in whether they learn or not. If everything the teacher does indicates that he/she doesn’t care if the students learn, then students will not pay attention and misbehaviors will escalate. Being late to class, not returning graded papers, assigning meaningless seatwork, and having low expectations for success are actions that tell students you do not expect much from them nor are you going to extend much effort in helping them achieve. Research has repeatedly shown students behave better and learn more from teachers who they perceive as caring and engaged. Skilled teachers make time and capture moments that include leading, modeling, and planning activities that build resilience, empathy, and other social-emotional competencies in students that improve their self-image, self-control, and in the end, their behavior.


Teachers must also consider their teaching style. Some students need more energetic learning activities and strategies to keep engaged. Think to the last time you had an all-day staff development and had to sit for a long period of time. It was boring and most likely you became disinterested, fiddled with other stuff like your phone, graded papers, talked with neighboring teachers, and let your mind wander. We often forget as teachers that we are moving about the classroom all day, staying in motion, getting materials, and using our voice and body to instruct. We are busy all day while students are typically sitting and receiving information. Effective teachers, on the other hand, know how to:


    • organize and structure the classroom for optimal learning
    • vary the learning activities to address diverse learning styles and modes
    • maximize the time on tasks and minimize time lost to transitions
    • use varied methods to frequently check for understanding
    • allow time and strategies for practice and application within the classroom setting
    • vary seating arrangements to accommodate the lesson
    • give corrective feedback and constructive support
    • use genuine praise in a timely and consistent manner to help students learn how to persevere and learn from errors
    • design methods for students to respond individually or in group settings
    • provide both individual, partnered, and group work activities
    • schedule planned activities for breaks in instruction i.e., 1 minute stretch break,  Turn and Talk activities, 5 minute reflection and share activities
    • plan alternative forms of assessment to meet individual needs

In order to meet today’s challenges and reduce the number of minority students involved in disciplinary actions, teachers and schools will need to take time and effort to reflect on and have quality discussions and training related to developing knowledge, understandings, values, attitudes, and skills for teaching the diverse student population.

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