Making Discipline Equitable

The depressing reality is that discipline in our schools is not fair-- Black and Indigenous students are massively overdisciplined. The good news is that there are many, many different research-based solutions out there. This post goes into a few!

Research to Practice: Racially Equitable Discipline in Schools

The problem

The depressing news: Discipline in American schools is anything but fair. Black and Native American students in particular are massively over disciplined (Anderson & Ritter, 2017; Sprague et al., 2012). This isn’t about students’ behaviors. Don’t believe me? Here are some studies that prove it. In 2015, Okonufa and Eberhardt did a seriously cool study where they had teachers read the school record of a fictional student who had misbehaved twice and answered questions about how severe the behavior was, how irritated they were by the student, and how severely the student should be disciplined. For half of the teachers, the student had a stereotypical Black name. For half of the teachers, the student had a stereotypical White name. That was literally the only thing about this fictional kid that changed. And guess what? Teachers felt REAL different about the two students. They were more likely to think the behavior was part of a pattern for the Black named kid than the White named one, more likely to see the behavior as really problematic, and wanted to discipline the Black named student more. Remember, everything was the same except how the names sounded– and the more likely the teachers were to think that the kid was Black, the worse it got. 


That was with fictional students. Turns out it isn’t any better with real kids. In 2010, Bradshaw and colleagues tried to do something similar with real kids. They had almost 400 teachers rate the behaviors of the almost 7,000 kids in their classes. Then they looked at the students’ demographics and how many office referrals they received. The researchers found that even when they statistically controlled for the teacher’s own ratings of the students’ behaviors, the teachers STILL sent more Black kids to the office than White ones. That means that they were sending Black kids whose behaviors they rated as pretty good to the office and only sending White kids whose behaviors they had rated as way worse. 

Black and Native American students in particular are suspended more, sent to the office more, and expelled WAY more than is warranted (Anderson & Ritter, 2017; Sprague et al., 2012). There is a huge problem in our schools. 


Now onto the promised optimistic note. Teachers can change this. There are structural problems at schools for sure– but these are problems in our classrooms. These are not teachers are racists and bad people problems. These are our society has screwed us all up and now we need to fix it problems. So let’s talk about how to fix it.

Solutions to inequitable discipline
  • As a school and a teacher, acknowledge the problem: Carter and colleagues (2014) argue that dealing with the problem starts with acknowledging the problem. They recommend that schools pull data and have honest conversations. Then, if there are racial disparities, the school take a race conscious approach to dealing with them– including through PDs that talk about the problem.
  • As a school, have conversations about race: Carter and colleagues (2014) similarly recommend that the teachers talk about race and talk about the school’s approach to discipline and who it is working for and who it is not. The conversations can be hard and they have suggestions on how to have them. 
  • As a teacher, build supportive relationships with students. Interventions like My Teaching Partner can be helpful in finding new ways to build strong relationships. You can also do it on your own– find new ways to build connections with students, especially students who might be on your office referral list (Carter et al., 2014; Losen et al., 2014).
  • As a teacher, make your classroom culturally sustaining. Think about how your instruction can be responsive to your students from the names in your word problems to whose perspectives are included in lessons on US history (Carter et al., 2014).
  • As a teacher, take a moment to pause and reflect before writing an office referral. Is it needed? What else can you do? (Carter et al., 2014). 
  • As a teacher, try restorative approaches in your classroom. Restorative approaches focus on “repairing any harm caused to victims and making the community whole, and doing so in a manner that also addresses the needs of the offenders so they are less likely to misbehave in the future” (Losen et al., 2014). The focus is on building community and students’ skills, not on punishing them.
  • As a teacher and a school, bring in parents and build partnerships with them (Carter et al., 2014).
  • As a teacher and a school, if a student has been suspended, form a team and make sure the reintegration process is smooth (Carter et al., 2014).
  • As a teacher and a school, invest time in socio-emotional learning programs (Losen et al., 2014). Put time into the things that make your day better– take the time to teach self-regulation and socioemotional skills. Maybe that means mindfulness instruction (super effective and not time consuming at all!) or it means getting ideas from your school psychologist, but invest time proactively so you lose less of it reactively.
  • As a school, create non-punitive response protocols to behavioral challenges. Get rid of zero tolerance (it doesn’t work) and put in research based interventions instead (Just Children & Cornell, 2013).
  • Implement positive behaviors interventions and supports. Note that if you apply the strategies race blind, you will get fewer overall referrals and suspensions but not a reduction in disparities. At the same time, PBIS WORKS (Losen et al., 2014).


Our discipline policies aren’t working and aren’t fair. Changing it begins with acknowledging the problem and thinking about how to build stronger relationships in our classrooms and stronger systems at our schools. As teachers we are at the forefront of both the problem and the potential solutions. We can be the change we want to see.

  • Anderson, K. & Ritter, G. (2017). Disparate use of exclusionary discipline: Evidence on inequities in school discipline from a U.S. state. education policy analysis archives, 25(49), 1-32.  
  • Bradshaw, C., Mitchell, M., O’Brennan, L., Leaf, P. (2010). Multilevel exploration of factors contributing to the overrepresentation of Black students in office disciplinary referrals. Journal of Educational Psychology, 102(2), 508 –520.  
  • Carter, P., Skiba, R., Arredondo, M., and Pollock, M. (2014). You can’t fix what you don’t look at: Acknowledging race in addressing racial discipline disparities. The Discipline Disparities Research to Practice Collaborative.
  • JustChildren, and Cornell, D. (2013). Prevention v. punishment: Threat assessment, school suspensions, and racial disparities. Legal Aid Justice Center, Charlottesville, VA.
  • Losen, D., Hewitt, D., & Toldson, I., (2014). Eliminating excessive and unfair exclusionary discipline in schools: Policy recommendations for reducing disparities. Bloomington, IN: The Equity Project at Indiana University. Available at
  • Okonofua, J. & and Eberhardt, J. (2015). Two strikes: Race and the disciplining of young students. Psychological Science, 26, 617– 624. 
  • Sprague, J., Vincent, C., Tobin, T., Pavel, M. (2012). Preventing disciplinary exclusions of students from American Indian/Alaska Native backgrounds. In K. DeCataldo & T. Lang (Eds.) Keeping kids in school and out of court: A collection of reports to inform the National Leadership Summit on school-justice partnership (pp.83-94). Albany, NY: New York State Permanent Judicial Commission on Justice for Children.