• By Paula Johnson, Ph.D. • IDRA Newsletter • June-July 2022 •

Dr. Paula Johnson photoAs much as we care for our students, there are times when their behavior can disrupt learning. Sometimes, minor distractions like side conversations or students who are unprepared for class take the focus off course. Other times, we experience disturbances like a heated argument or fight. These incidents not only interrupt instruction, they sometimes may also put students’ safety in jeopardy.

As teachers and administrators, we do our best to redirect students. However, sometimes our response is more extreme than the behavior calls for, especially if we are overwhelmed in the moment by external factors. In either case, adult response to student behavior depends largely on experience, emotion and educator bias. This combination results in a largely inequitable assignment of consequences and creates a negative school environment.

Schools are in dire need to advance equitable school discipline reform. Exclusionary and corporal discipline practices are more likely to negatively impact Black students, boys and students with disabilities. For example, Black students experience corporal punishment 2.5 times more than their percentage of the student population (37% vs. 15%). To reduce these disparities, responses to student behavior must center their social, emotional and academic development through an asset-based approach.

School climate speaks broadly to the quality and nature of the school environment. Not only for students, but also for families, teachers and the larger school community. School climate describes the way we feel at school. Climate is based on patterns of an individual’s experience of school life.

Additionally, school climate reflects the school’s values, relationships, instructional practices and traditions. A valuing school climate leads to an inclusive school culture where everyone feels a sense of community. This sense of belonging positively pours over into other areas like classroom behavior, academic mindsets and student interactions with others.

Note: Our goal here is not to replace one punishment with another. Rather, the following recommendations provide opportunities for students and adults to learn and grow in resolving conflict through relationship building by developing social and critical thinking skills and problem-solving strategies.

Recommendation 1: Establish high expectations for student behavior. This is an effective way to support students’ academic and behavioral success. Clear and consistent classroom expectations provide goals for students. Students know which behaviors are appropriate. Expectations enable students to take responsibility for their behavior as well as their learning. Teachers can more easily observe and encourage positive behaviors. For example, a teacher individually thanking students who are prepared for the day’s lesson signals to other students that it is time to get ready for learning.

Teachers can address off-task behaviors without judgment by referring to the agreed-upon classroom expectations. Additionally, using reflective questioning enables students to redirect their own behavior. When a teacher observes a student who does not appear to be following instructions, they might ask the student the following questions: What are you currently doing? What task should you be working on? Do you need assistance? Clarify and confirm the given directions. Then allow the student time to return to the assigned task. Finally, thank them for making good decisions. Remember that students need multiple opportunities to practice self-management. Pre-established privileges and consequences enable students to monitor their own behavior and learning.

Recommendation 2: School staff, teachers and administrators must establish effective means of communication with students and families about behavioral and academic expectations. This assists families in providing positive reinforcement at home to teach and model the use of appropriate problem-solving and social skills. Communication helps students maintain consistent expectations for interactions with peers, teachers, and parents or caregivers. Open and respectful communication about behavior and academic habits also encourages honest discussions when concerns do arise. Students’ capacity for self-management increases through teacher feedback, peer and family support, and other community building activities. When students feel they are secure in their environment, they spend more time engaged in the learning process and experience more positive interactions with others.

Recommendation 3: Increase the regular use of social and emotional learning (SEL) supports to address students’ needs. Many inappropriate student behaviors developed or became magnified during the pandemic. It is crucial to provide students with multiple opportunities to discuss their experiences over the last three years. For example, the U.S. Department of Education Return to School Roadmap (https://sites.ed.gov/roadmap) offers suggestions on classroom activities that include journaling exercises, group discussions, and letter writing about how the pandemic has impacted them. Other outlets include artwork, music and poetry. SEL encourages students’ self-awareness and mindfulness, develops our empathy for others and builds emotional safe spaces for students to learn.

Positive school climate strategies also help address adult behaviors. Teachers, administrators and parents can learn to recognize biases and assumptions they may hold that impact their interactions with adults and students. It is important to take time to analyze how they may view and treat others differently based on their identities. This practice enables them to spot growth opportunities in themselves and others. Disrupting bias-based attitudes and actions increases student outcomes, behaviorally and academically, and positively affects the school community. Shifting toward a more inclusive school culture improves instructional practice and increases student and family engagement.

Inclusive school climates ensure that the conditions for successful teaching and learning are in place. Students thrive in a school community that encourages and maintains respectful, trusting and caring relationships. Similarly, welcoming school climates demonstrate the school’s efforts to foster a safe and respectful atmosphere that promotes and supports the academic, social and emotional, and physical well-being of the entire school community.

Paula N. Johnson, Ph.D., is an IDRA senior education associate and director of the IDRA EAC-South. Comments and questions may be directed to her via email at paula.johnson@idra.org.

[©2022, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the June-July 2022 issue of the IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]