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Classroom Q&A

With Larry Ferlazzo

In this EdWeek blog, an experiment in knowledge-gathering, Ferlazzo will address readers’ questions on classroom management, ELL instruction, lesson planning, and other issues facing teachers. Send your questions to lferlazzo@epe.org. Read more from this blog.

Equity & Diversity Opinion

11 Ways Teachers Can Eliminate Discipline Disparities

By Larry Ferlazzo — March 10, 2023 8 min read
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Racial disparities in school discipline do exist, and today’s post completes a three-part series exploring what to do about them.

The Answer Is ‘Staring Them Straight in the Face’

Vernita Mayfield, Ph.D., is an educational consultant who supports leaders in creating systems that result in more equitable student outcomes using data-driven processes with observable, measurable results. She is a speaker and the author of Cultural Competence Now: 56 Exercises to Help Educators Challenge Bias, Racism, and Privilege (ASCD, 2020). Follow her on Twitter at @DrVMayfield:

There are numerous studies establishing that educator bias is instrumental in how students of color are perceived and treated in schools (Carter, Skiba, Arredondo, & Pollock, 2016; Cole-Lewis, Hope, Mustafaa, & Jagers, 2021; Staats, 2016; Whitford, Katsiyannis, & Counts, 2016) Disparate discipline outcomes in schools typically mirror the kinds of social-justice disparities we have witnessed in the American legal system.

It is nonetheless surprising to still find educators that tiptoe around this issue by shrugging their shoulders and employing learned helplessness. Particularly when the answer to reducing and eliminating discipline disparities is literally staring them straight in the face. In lieu of that fact, here are 11 things educators can do tomorrow to address this issue.

1. Develop or utilize data systems that document incidents of student discipline disaggregated by subgroup categories. You need a simplified dashboard that informs you of how many students are excluded from class—formally and informally, student suspensions, expulsions; and where behavioral infractions occur and how often. In other words, first establish that there is a problem and then document the scope and breadth of the problem at hand. If you endeavor to change behavior, you must make a case that disparities are occurring that are significantly impacting children’s educational experiences at school. The use of indisputable data will help support your case. Without it, you are merely hypothesizing and guessing. It will be difficult to move people toward sustainable change. With data in hand, discuss the outcomes with staff.

2. Should the data reveal disparities, there are some questions I recommend asking. 1) Is this data acceptable to you? If not, what is an outcome we can accept? 2) To what do we attribute the outcomes we are seeing? (Warning: The responses to this question could range from blaming society, the parents, God, and the children to accepting professional responsibility for student outcomes within their locus of control.) Of the responses theorized, which ones are within our control? Which ones can we begin to address today? 3) Is this the best we can do? If not, what do we need to change to get different results?

3. Conduct a program review on your SEL approach. How frequently and fluently is it implemented? Does the content support the development of inclusive practices by students? Does the staff reinforce inclusive and equitable practices in their interactions with students? How would you know? How are you measuring the efficacy of this work?

4. Examine your multitiered system of supports. Is the staff prepared to recognize and respond to signs of trauma? Are there sufficient resources to support students who are experiencing trauma? If not, include more training and knowledge-building on the professional-development calendars for certificated and classified staff alike.

5. Ensure PLC meetings provide regular time to share effective instructional and disciplinary approaches used by staff. Share ideas—what worked, what did not, and why.

6. Conduct a book study on racism and implicit bias. Explore how it has manifested historically in school settings and school policy. Raise the level of awareness of its potential influence in classroom interactions with students. Make equity central to your educational approach in schools. It should be part of who you are as an educator and not merely a set of tools you employ at will.

7. Keep your finger on the tab of school climate. Regularly distribute student questionnaires that allow students the opportunity to discuss and/or rate their experiences in schools and classrooms. Discuss the outcomes with staff. Do students report they experience a sense of belonging in the school? Do students report they feel valued? Do students report they feel treated fairly? Are students able to connect with at least one caring adult in the building? Share the data with staff and design a plan to improve.

8. Confront any elephants in the room such as low parental contact from staff members. Far too often, staff are ashamed to admit they are afraid to contact parents of color or feel they lack efficacy in their communication skills to do so effectively. Recruit your most vocal parents to pair with a staff member and provide training on this topic.


9. Build a strong parent-family-educator coalition empowering parents to lead, ask critical questions, share their observations and work to design change that they approve and endorse. Provide for their valued input on school improvement.

10. Include effective student-relationship-building approaches observed in the building as part of your regular “shout outs” in the school newsletter. If the newsletter is digital, provide video clips and discuss specifically what practices are exemplary and why. Help teachers connect the dots.

11. Relationships, relationships, relationships—and not in a superficial way. For example, I speak to my neighbor every day, but I would not necessarily characterize what we share as a relationship. The kind of relationships that children need in schools are meaningful, if not transformative—not ones grounded in tolerance for those with whom they share a common experience or space. Children need relationships in schools where a caring adult listens to them, explores with them, plays with them, talks with them, laughs with them, dreams with them, reads with them, learns with them, caters to them, expects the best from them, protects them from physical, emotional, or psychological harm, unceasingly works to help them be successful, and celebrates them when they are.

It may seem old-fashioned, but the golden rule is the key to targeting implicit bias in schools and the reduction and elimination of all educational inequities and exclusionary practices. Simply put, treat my children the way you want someone to treat your children. Demand for my children what you demand for your own. Expect of my children what you expect of your own. And don’t punish any child for being different from your own.

Acknowledging Race in Addressing Racial Discipline Disparities. Urban Education, 52(2), 207-235. doi:10.1177/0042085916660350

Cole-Lewis, Y. C. O., Hope, E. C., Mustafaa, F. N., & Jagers, R. J. (2021). Incongruent Impressions: Teacher, Parent, and Student Perceptions of Two Black Boys’ School Experiences. Journal of adolescent research, 74355842110621. doi:10.1177/07435584211062140

Staats, C. (2016). Understanding Implicit Bias. Education Digest, 82(1), 29-38.

Whitford, D. K., Katsiyannis, A., & Counts, J. (2016). Discriminatory Discipline: Trends and Issues. NASSP Bulletin, 100(2), 117-135. doi:10.1177/0192636516677340


This is the final post in a three-part series answering the question: What are strategies schools can implement to reduce and eliminate disparities in discipline affecting students of color?

You can see Part One here and Part Two here.

In Part One, Angela M. Ward, Ph.D., and Mary Rice-Boothe, Ed.D., contributed their reflections.

In Part Two, Ann H. Lê, Ed.D., and Paul Forbes shared their responses.

And, today, Vernita Mayfield, Ph.D., wraps up this series.

Thanks to Vernita for contributing her thoughts!

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Education Week has published a collection of posts from this blog, along with new material, in an e-book form. It’s titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

Just a reminder; you can subscribe and receive updates from this blog via email (The RSS feed for this blog, and for all Ed Week articles, has been changed by the new redesign—new ones are not yet available). And if you missed any of the highlights from the first 11 years of this blog, you can see a categorized list below.

I am also creating a Twitter list including all contributors to this column.

The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.


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