Schoolwide discipline policies are meant to reduce disruptions to student learning. However, research reveals that the use of exclusionary discipline policies and practices, involving in- and out-of-school suspension and expulsion, could lead to long-term harmful outcomes for students who are frequently excluded from learning environments. Exclusionary discipline increases the risk of academic failure, school dropout, and socioemotional and mental health problems. Importantly, research also indicates that students with disabilities are disproportionately likely to be subject to exclusionary policies. According to 2017-18 data from the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, students with disabilities comprised approximately 13% of total school K-12 enrollment, yet receive about 25% of one or more out-of-school suspensions and 23% of all school expulsions. This pattern of school discipline demonstrates a pressing concern in modern education, requiring educators to explore systematic changes in current practice.
NCSER has been funding research projects that address school discipline for students with or at risk for disability, either directly or indirectly through interventions aimed at improving behavior. This blog features some examples of this work in elementary school, ranging from more focused student-level interventions to schoolwide efforts.
Timothy Lewis (University of Missouri, Columbia) and his colleagues are currently conducting a study aimed at evaluating the effectiveness of a behavioral intervention program called Check-in/Check-out. This intervention works to improve the social, emotional, and academic behavior of students at risk for emotional behavior disorder (EBD). Previous studies on Check-in/Check-out evaluated the intervention using single-case design research and small n group designs. This study expands the evidence base on Check-in/Check-out by employing a randomized controlled trial and assessing cost-effectiveness. Taking place in midwestern elementary schools, selected students at risk of EBD “check-in” with an intervention facilitator about daily behavioral goals. Students receive feedback and points (derived from a preestablished point system) from their teachers throughout the day about the extent to which they are meeting these goals. “Check-out” occurs at the end of the day, when points are recorded and the student takes this information home in a daily progress report. Results from this research project may offer insight on ways Check-in/Check-out can redirect student behavior at early stages, thus harboring the potential to decrease discipline rates among students with disabilities.
Carl Sumi at SRI International and his colleagues at the University of Florida evaluated the effectiveness of the Tools for Getting Along intervention, which focuses on educators rather than on individual students. Tools for Getting Along is designed to help teachers enhance social problem solving in their classrooms so that students and teachers can work together to improve behavior and decrease disciplinary action. Prior research revealed that among this intervention’s positive effects, some of the strongest impacts were on behavior regulation and problem-solving knowledge for students with or at risk for disabilities, specifically those with behavioral needs. This effectiveness study expanded upon this research by incorporating more locations with more diversity and using an independent evaluation team to conduct the randomized controlled trial within the context of a routine school environment. The research team recently concluded the study, reporting preliminary findings of significant positive impact of the intervention on teacher report of student social skills, behavioral regulation, emotional regulation, cognitive regulation, and executive functions, as well as student self-report of problem-solving knowledge. Ultimately, these changes in student behavior can lead to decreases in referrals for student discipline.
On broader, systems-level, Jeong Hoon Choi (University of Kansas) is testing a program, Resources Aligned and Integrated for Student Equity, that may help combat disproportionate exclusionary disciplinary practices. This intervention helps educator teams use data to better align and integrate general and special education resources to help students whose needs are not met through the universally and additionally provided instruction of the school. Embedded within a multi-tiered system of supports model, the intervention helps systematize team processes and decisions for those students with the most complex needs. Grade-level educator teams will participate in training, practice, and coaching to implement the practices, and the school district will receive technical assistance to help them sustain the intervention in their schools. The randomized controlled trial aims to determine whether schools receiving this intervention have better student academic and well-being outcomes, including reduced office discipline referrals and suspensions.
Kent McIntosh and Erik Girvan (University of Oregon) are addressing disproportionate disciplinary practices through more of a racial equity lens with a training targeting implicit bias among teachers. Project ReACT is a professional development program in which teachers are trained and coached over time to (a) identify specific situations where implicit bias likely occurred in discipline decisions by examining their own school discipline data with school leadership, (b) revise current discipline processes to better meet the needs of students from underserved and over-excluded groups, and (c) design strategies for teachers to minimize implicit bias in school discipline decisions. The research team assessed how exclusionary discipline rates changed in racially and ethnically diverse urban and rural elementary schools in several districts across the country. Using a randomized controlled trial, matching schools based on existing levels of inequities, the research team found that schools receiving the intervention experienced significant decreases in racial disparities in school discipline and office referrals for Black students.
NCSER investments in these projects demonstrate the commitment to finding effective, evidence-based solutions for improving behavior problems, and therefore reducing school discipline rates, for students with disabilities. While research continues to strive toward improving equity in this area, school leaders can also follow the guidelines issued by the Department of Education Office of Civil Rights and Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services to ensure fair treatment and access to services for students with disabilities regarding disciplinary measures.
This blog was authored by Isabelle Saillard, student volunteer for NCSER and undergraduate at the University of Virginia. Jackie Buckley is the program officer for NCSER’s Social, Emotional, and Behavioral Competence portfolio.