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Erasing Discipline Gaps by Focusing on Connection

18 May 2016 by Guest Blogger

When I was in middle school and high school, I frustrated teachers at every turn. I had plenty of ability but wasn’t motivated to put forth much effort and was the source of constant behavioral issues. I would trade stories with my friends, and it was clear that everyone knew I was as big a problem in the classroom. I always wondered, "Why do I never receive a referral when my friends often do?" I now realize the answer may have been in the mirror the whole time: my skin tone.

If you are skeptical that this issue is pressing in schools, these sources outline the problem well:

Differential referrals on the basis of skin tone are a major problem. The struggle is in deciding on an appropriate solution. A recent collection of potential solutions was published as an edited collection by Dan Losen entitled Closing the School Discipline Gap: Equitable Remedies for Excessive Exclusion. One of the chapters in this book that I helped co-author, "The Promise of a Teacher Professional Development Program in Reducing the Racial Disparity in Classroom Exclusionary Discipline" by Anne Gregory, details the impacts of the professional development program, MyTeachingPartner Coaching (MTP). The results clearly show that in classrooms operating with no intervention, African American students were twice as likely to be referred for discipline as other students. In classrooms where teachers received MTP, this gap was eliminated and the overall number of discipline referrals was drastically lower.

So what? How does this help educators who don’t have the means to utilize MyTeachingPartner? Perhaps the answer lies back where I started this blog. To bring us back, I was a behavioral issue who was not engaged, and I was a constant thorn in my teachers’ sides. The most effective solution came from the only teacher I vividly remember, which is not a coincidence. She formed a connection with me that went beyond the subject matter, and utilized that connection to keep me in my place. She also found ways to connect the material to my own life (once comparing the economy of the U.S. to that of European soccer) and in doing so she kept me engaged, motivated, and eager to learn. These connections provide the key to unlocking and eliminating the discipline gap.

It is incredibly simplistic at its core, so it is hard to believe that schools continue to overlook it. Finding ways to connect teachers to students not only addresses student behavior, but it also increases the likelihood that teachers will move their mindset away from student referrals.

In my Introduction to Psychology courses, I engage students in a discussion of why we cannot eliminate stereotypes. Our brains process information in a way that we organize information in categories, and we are often not conscious of how that organization impacts our attitudes and behaviors. Teachers cannot get rid of stereotypes, just like the rest of us, but forming connections with individual students eliminates the likelihood of any stereotypes impacting their behavior towards students.

We place a lot of emphasis on teachers making changes or blaming teachers for the problems facing our students. This is as ridiculous as the issue with the discipline gap. Teachers need tools—not criticism—and connection is the key. The CLASS tool outlines these connections in detail. I’ll finish by focusing on two key dimensions from the Upper Elementary and Secondary CLASS tools: Regard for Adolescent Perspectives and Analysis and Inquiry.

Middle school and high school students face a dilemma as they balance forming meaningful connections with peers and adults while striving for autonomy in an effort to develop their individual identity. If we help them on that journey in the classroom, then we will eliminate the discipline gap. Regard for Adolescent Perspectives is all about allowing students to insert their individual identity in the classroom. For students struggling with their identity inside and outside of school, opportunities to demonstrate their perspective in the classroom may create a moment that changes their life.

Challenging tasks keep minds busy. There is an unwritten rule in my house that when we open a puzzle and place the pieces out on a table, I cannot be expected to focus on anything else until the puzzle is complete. This is because puzzles unlock my mind in a unique way. Analysis and Inquiry is about creating this challenge for students and doing so in a way that learning is scaffolded appropriately. If you want students to stay engaged, you need to provide them with tasks that they find interesting and challenging. The only way to accomplish this is by connecting with students and getting to know what makes them tick. Not only will this help a teacher challenge them, but it will also communicate that their perspective is valuable.

I just returned from graduation celebrations for my sister-in-law in which I listened to speaker after speaker finish their speech with a quote from someone else. I found this disappointing because the point of knowledge is to learn from others and then adapt it to your own perspective. So here is my unique perspective on teaching inserted into the core of those quotes:

Teachers who form meaningful connections with students erase discipline gaps by valuing the unique perspective of each individual student. 

Learn more about Teachstone's stance on suspension and expulsion in The Joint Statement: Standing Together Against Suspension & Expulsion in Early Childhood signed by dozens of leaders and organizations in early childhood education, including the Early Care and Education Consortium, of which Teachstone is a member.


Christopher_Hafen.pngChristopher A. Hafen is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at Northern Virginia Community College and a Visiting Professor of Psychology at the University of Virginia. 


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