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Improving Racial Equity in School Discipline through Culturally Responsive SEL

By Vicki Nishioka | April 25, 2021


Vicki Nishioka
Vicki Nishioka is a practice expert at Education Northwest with extensive experience in evaluation and technical assistance focusing on equity, school climate, discipline, and social and emotional learning in preK—12.

State-level policy reforms can help school and district leaders improve school discipline practices by shifting the focus away from punishment and toward building students' social and emotional learning (SEL) skills. Building adult capacity to teach, model, and coach SEL skills throughout the school day promotes stronger teacher-student relationships, student engagement, and better classroom management that prevents school discipline problems.1

However, policy reforms may not achieve their intended goals if schools and districts lack the professional development and resources needed to shift discipline practices.2 In a recent REL Northwest study, we examined the relationship between a 2015 Oregon state policy reform and shifts toward nonexclusionary discipline— actions that do not remove students from classroom instruction— among students in grades K–5. While many racial/ethnic student groups were significantly less likely to be suspended or expelled after the reform, the opposite was true for Black students. In some cases, American Indian/Alaska Native and Hispanic students also experienced higher discipline rates than students overall.

To successfully implement policy reforms, schools need resources to train and support all educators— teachers, school staff members, and administrators— in the new approach to discipline.3 With these resources, educators can proactively build student SEL skills, improve culturally affirming practices, and strengthen educator-student relationships. This can reduce cultural misunderstandings that may result in unnecessary exclusionary discipline, particularly for students of color.4

School and district leaders can consider supporting the following approaches to improve relationships— and reduce reliance on exclusionary discipline— in their own schools. The suggestions draw from several REL Northwest reports and trainings, as well as other research on school climate and discipline.

Strengthen relationships with students

Educators tend to see fewer behavior issues in classrooms where students perceive educators to be caring and involved.5 Educators can practice perspective-taking and empathy to build connections with students and help them feel safe, welcome, and understood.6

Train educators to teach, model, and coach SEL skills

Educators can help students learn SEL skills by actively teaching and modeling core competencies of SEL such as self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, responsible decision-making, and relationship skills.7 Educators can then coach students to develop their skills by weaving opportunities to practice SEL into the school day. For example, educators can model and teach students how to apply SEL skills in different social activities or settings and then praise students for using SEL appropriately or reteach skills as needed.

Understand and address implicit bias

Every person sees the world through the lens of their own beliefs, values, and prior experiences.8 Thus, implicit or unconscious biases may shape an individual's understandings and perspectives of others.

Implicit bias can lead educators and students to interpret the same events in two different ways, especially when they do not share common lived experiences or cultural backgrounds.9 Schools can address this by helping educators build awareness of their own implicit biases and learn about their students' cultural backgrounds and perspectives. This can increase educators' empathy, helping them build positive relationships with students from racial and cultural backgrounds different from their own and respond to discipline situations in culturally responsive ways.10

Create a culturally responsive school climate

When educators and students hold different cultural beliefs and values, they may have different expectations about student behaviors that could result in disproportionate discipline.11 For example, many U.S. schools implement expectations and routines that are developed by the teacher. However, many students, especially students of color, feel more welcome in schools and classrooms that center students and collectivist cultural values, such as cooperation and maintaining relationships to achieve goals that benefit the whole community.12

To improve cross-cultural understanding, educators can invite students and families to teach about their cultures and co-create school environments that uphold their values. Research-based culturally responsive strategies to promote SEL can also contribute to positive, inclusive environments that reduce behavior issues.

Use data to promote equity in school discipline

School and district leaders can review their own discipline data, disaggregated by racial/ethnic groups, to understand opportunities and challenges related to racial equity in discipline within their own schools. These REL Northwest training materials from a 2018 training series can help teams use evidence to identify interventions, develop an action plan, track their effectiveness, and inform improvement decisions. Ongoing continuous improvement and data-informed decisionmaking will ensure that SEL and school discipline practices respond to the ever-changing racial, language, and cultural diversity of our school communities.


1 Brackett, M. A., Reyes, M. R., Rivers, S. E., Elbertson, N. A., & Salovey, P. (2011). Classroom emotional climate, teacher affiliation, and student conduct. Journal of Classroom Interaction, 46(1), 27–36. http://eric.ed.gov; Darling-Hammond, L., & Cook-Harvey, C. M. (2018). Educating the whole child: Improving climate to support student success. Palo Alto, CA: Learning Policy Institute. https://eric.ed.gov
2 Fixsen, D., Blase, K., Metz, A., & van Dyke, M. (2013). Statewide implementation of evidence-based programs. Exceptional Children, 79(2), 213–-230. https://eric.ed.gov
3 See endnote 3.
4 Gregory, A., & Fergus, E. (2017). Social and emotional learning and equity in school discipline. Future of Children, 27(1), 117–136. https://eric.ed.gov
5 Brackett, M. A., Reyes, M. R., Rivers, S. E., Elbertson, N. A., & Salovey, P. (2011). Classroom emotional climate, teacher affiliation, and student conduct. Journal of Classroom Interaction, 46(1), 27–36. https://eric.ed.gov; Cornell, D., Shuckla, K., & Konold, T. R. (2016). Authoritative school climate and student academic engagement, grades, and aspirations in middle and high schools. AERA Open, 2(2), 1-18. Retrieved March 14, 2021, from https://journals.sagepub.com
6 Okonofua, J. A., Paunesku, D., & Walton, G. M. (2016). Brief intervention to encourage empathic discipline cuts suspension rates in half among adolescents. PNAS Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 113(19), 5221–5226. Retrieved March 14, 2021, from https://www.pnas.org/content/113/19/5221
7 Darling-Hammond, L., & Cook-Harvey, C. M. (2018). Educating the whole child: Improving climate to support student success. Palo Alto, CA: Learning Policy Institute. https://eric.ed.gov
8 Gehlbach, H., & Brinkworth, M. E. (2012). The social perspective taking process: Strategies and sources of evidence in taking another's perspective. Teacher College Record, 114(1), 1–29. https://eric.ed.gov
9 Allen, Q. (2010). Racial microaggressions: The schooling experiences of Black middle-class males in Arizona's secondary schools. Journal of African American Males in Education, 1(2), 125-143. Retrieved April 7, 2021, from https://diversity.utexas.edu.
10 Galinsky, A. D., & Moskowitz, G. B. (2000). Perspective-taking: Decreasing stereotype expression, stereotype accessibility, and in-group favoritism. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 78(4), 708–724. Retrieved April 6, 2021, from https://www.academia.edu; Okonofua, J. A., Paunesku, D., & Walton, G. M. (2016). Brief intervention to encourage empathic discipline cuts suspension rates in half among adolescents. PNAS Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 113(19), 5221–5226. Retrieved March 14, 2021, from https://www.pnas.org
11 Irvine, J. J. (1990). Black students and school failure: Policies practices and prescriptions. New York: Greenwood Press. https://eric.ed.gov
12 Cortina, K. S., Arel, S., & Smith-Darden, J. P. (2017). School belonging in different cultures: The effects of individualism and power distance. Frontiers in Education, 2(56). Retrieved March 30, 2021, from https://www.icos.umich.edu