By Kaela Farrise, M.A., CEI Program Assistant, Innovation & Research Support
Note: This blog is part 3 of a series on supporting Black students in schools. Part 1 which specifically addressed what bias looks like towards Black girls in schools can be found here, and part 2 which addressed changes that can be made on a school-wide level is here.
Research shows that Black girls, and students of color generally, receive more and harsher disciplinary actions than their peers. On an individual level, teachers and school staff can use targeted intervention strategies to reduce the impacts of this bias. These interventions could be included in a school’s teacher training and professional development workshop series to ensure teachers are practicing consistently and getting support in implementing them. Read below for a few specific intervention strategies teachers can use.
Recognize Vulnerable Decision Points
Timing matters when it comes to discipline. In one model for lessening the impact of bias on school discipline, researchers noted that “in general, implicit biases tend to affect decisions that involve more uncertainty, ambiguity, or discretion” (Mcintosh et al., 2014, p.8). They go on to say that training that focuses on “vulnerable decision points… where there are contextual events or elements of the immediate situation (e.g. teacher decision to refer to the office, administrator decision to suspend) that increase the likelihood of bias affecting discipline decision making” might make the biggest impact. Things like time of day (after lunch or end of day when teachers may be tired), time of year (end of school year when teachers are more likely to be stressed), or location (outside of the classroom where adults who don’t know the student well are more likely to be reprimanding them) all increase the likelihood of making a biased decision. The first thing teachers and staff can do is recognize what emotions and thoughts are coming up for them during “vulnerable decision points” calling for a snap judgement. After that, they can begin to regulate their responses.
During vulnerable interactions, practice waiting an extra moment to take a deep breath in order to act from a place of reasoned compassion instead of gut instinct. A past clinical psychology professor of mine would always remind us that we are not responsible for our first thought, but we are responsible for our second and how we put those thoughts into actions. Teachers and other school personnel can ask themselves: “Are there other ways to view this situation?”, “Would I be reacting the same if this were a different student?”, and “What might be causing a student to act this way?” in order to begin to bring context into their decisions and decide on a course of action.
Implement Restorative Justice Practices
Once regulated, educators may choose to use restorative instead of punitive measures to manage behavior. Evidence shows that restorative practices reduce disciplinary referrals, suspensions and expulsions, and improve teacher morale, teacher retention, and academic outcomes for students (Ashley & Burke, 2009). The Illinois Criminal Justice Authority produced a guide on implementing restorative practices in schools that overviews the shifts made in the way negative behavior is approached:
Reprinted from Implementing restorative justice: A guide for schools. By J. Ashley & K. Burke, Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority.
In practice, restorative justice allows for dialogue and opportunities for repair, rather than exclusion of students who may be having a hard time (Ashley & Burke, 2009; Clifford, n.d.).
Practice an Empathic Discipline Intervention
In a 2016 study, researchers at Stanford University found that a short empathic discipline intervention cut student suspension rates in half during one academic year (Okonofua et al., 2016). This online intervention encourages teachers to actively “adopt an empathic mindset about discipline” by reading a brief article for framing, and then reviewing incident records and reflecting on how they would discipline the student (Okonofua et al., 2016). Teachers can adopt this intervention by actively cueing a positive, empathic mindset through a short phrase or sentence during high stress situations or at vulnerable decision points.
Use the WISE Feedback Intervention When Giving Feedback
Teachers might also practice using the WISE Feedback Intervention developed by a different team of researchers at Stanford University, which encourages teachers to begin feedback with “I’m giving you these comments because I have very high expectations and I know that you can reach them” indicating to a student that a teacher has positive regard for them and believes in them (Yeager et al., 2013). Here, researchers found that students “often don’t know why teachers criticize their work. African-American students in particular may fear their teachers are giving negative feedback because of negative stereotypes that say African-Americans are not smart or good at school” (Stanford University SPARQ, n.d.). When students’ fears are addressed, they are better able to focus on school work and more likely to turn in higher quality work.
Working to address bias can be uncomfortable and research shows that teachers often do not see themselves as biased, though outcomes may suggest something different. Assuming that everyone has biases allows for a focus on making positive changes instead of blame or shame. By consistently practicing evidence-based interventions, and implementing structural changes on the policy and classroom levels, teachers and schools can move towards creating safe and nurturing spaces for all students.
Ashley, J. & Burke, K. (2009). Implementing restorative justice: A guide for schools. Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority.
Clifford, A. (n.d.) Teaching restorative practices with classroom circles. Center for Restorative Process.
Gregory, A. & Roberts, G. (2017). Teacher beliefs and the overrepresentation of Black students in classroom discipline. Theory Into Practice, 56(3): 187-194.
Hennesy, J. (2016). Walking in their students’ shoes: Encouraging an empathic mindset about student behavior transforms teachers’ discipline practices. Mindset Scholars Network.
Mcintosh, K., Girvan, E., Horner, R. & Smolkowski, K. (2014). Education not incarceration: A conceptual model for reducing racial and ethnic disproportionality in school discipline. Journal of Applied Research on Children, 5(4).
Okonofua, J., Paunesku, J. & Walton, G. M. (2016). Brief intervention to encourage empathic discipline cuts suspension rates in half among adolescents. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS), 113(19): 5221-5226.
Stanford University Social Psychological Answers to Real-World Questions (SPARQ). (n.d.) Wise critiques help students succeed.
Yeager, D. S., Purdie-Vaughns, V., Garcia, J., Apfel, N., Brzustoski, P.,Master, A., Hessert, W., Williams, M. & Cohen, G. L. (2013). Breaking the cycle of mistrust: Wise interventions to provide critical feedback across the racial divide. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 143, 804-824.