Diverting the Pipeline Happens in Shifts


On Jan. 8, the United States Departments of Education and Justice released a school discipline guidance package outlining the obligation schools have under federal law to administer student discipline without discrimination on the basis of race, color or national origin. For those who bear witness to harmful and inequitable school disciplinary policies that feed the school-to-prison pipeline, the announcement was a welcome message.

It’s also a long time coming. The development and release of these documents mark the culmination of two years of work under the Supportive School Discipline Initiative, a federal effort to “support the use of school discipline practices that foster safe, supportive, and productive learning environments while keeping students in school.” The initiative was a direct response to the Council of State Governments groundbreaking 2011 report Breaking Schools’ Rules, which found that African-American students and those who qualified for special education services were suspended or expelled at significantly higher rates than their peers. Breaking Schools’ Rules also reported that suspension and expulsion rates correlated with the likelihood students would enter the juvenile justice system.

The package released last week addresses the four goals set forth by the Supportive School Discipline Initiative (building consensus, investing in research and data collection, issuing guidance and building awareness, capacity and leadership) in a number of documents. In addition to a Dear Colleague Letter on Civil Rights and Discipline, it includes

  • Guiding Principles for Improving Climate and Discipline
  • A Directory of Federal School Climate and Discipline Resources
  • A Compendium of School Discipline Laws and Regulations
  • An Overview of the Supportive School Discipline Initiative
  • Additional resources and scheduled webinars.

Teaching Tolerance applauds these steps. We encourage you to become familiar with the package and to discuss it with your colleagues and your administration. While much of the guidance relates to school-wide personnel and leadership, we also encourage classroom teachers to reflect on how daily decisions can help divert the school-to-prison pipeline.

The teacher-student relationship is a critical antidote to the troubling tendency to “push out” students of color and students with disabilities because, on average, young people spend the majority of their school time in classrooms with teachers. Similar to many of the school-wide recommendations made in the guidance package, shifting away from punitive disciplinary practices in the classroom can also be effective. By adopting a more responsive approach, teachers can use their relationships with students to be agents of change and keep more students where they deserve to be—in class and learning. These five shifts can help.  

Shift 1: Adopt a social emotional lens. Teach to the whole child. Respect the dignity of all students, by setting expectations that hurtful words will not be tolerated in your classroom. Pay attention to whether your students’ basic needs are being met and respond appropriately to instances of illness, neglect or abuse. When appropriate, encourage students to access mental-health and counseling services provided at your school.

Shift 2: Know your students and develop your cultural competency. Learn and affirm the social and cultural capital that your students bring to the classroom. Avoid a cultural-deficit model when interpreting student behavior and progress. Be open to locating the deficit in your own practice or your school’s policies. Know your students’ home culture and be thoughtful about how to integrate those assets into instruction. Carry a sense of respect and humility with you when you engage families and community members. Be open to what you do not know and reflective about what you may assume to know.

Shift 3: Plan and deliver effective, student-centered instruction. Teach with the purpose and urgency your students deserve. A well planned and highly engaging lesson is the best way to manage a classroom. Plan and deliver lessons that connect to students’ lives, communities and world. Your students should understand and care about their purpose for learning. Differentiate instruction so that all students are challenged in the zone of proximal development. Misbehavior often starts when learners are bored or anxious.

Shift 4: Shift the paradigm from discipline to development. Model, reinforce and praise positive, healthy behavior. Become a “warm demander.” Students have the most respect for teachers they trust and know care about them but whose expectations are high. Praise often and publicly. Create routines and rituals that celebrate students’ success. Include these celebrations as part of your intervention repertoire. Try positive intervention strategies that build student capacity to manage their own behavior.

Shift 5: Resist the criminalization of school behavior. Keep kids in the classroom and police out. While extreme situations may warrant it, be extraordinarily thoughtful about when and why you kick a student out of your class. What are the costs of his or her lost instructional time? What are the costs to your credibility with that student?  Examine the enforcement of discipline policies for patterns, both in your classroom and across your school. Are there gender or racial disparities?

How will your school make use of the school discipline guidance package? What can you do today to help divert the school-to-prison pipeline?

Chiariello is a teaching and learning specialist for Teaching Tolerance.