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Promoting a Positive School Environment for All Students

By Vicki Nishioka | July 18, 2019

Vicki Nishioka
Vicki Nishioka is a senior research advisor 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.

Positive discipline approaches help students learn—and practice—social and emotional skills, develop healthy relationships with peers and adults, and resolve disagreements in socially acceptable ways.

Although exclusionary discipline plays an important role in maintaining school safety, we now know suspending or expelling students for nonviolent behaviors (such as truancy, failure to follow directions, or disrespect) removes them from important learning opportunities.

Building a Positive Environment for All

When a school community creates a welcoming, emotionally supportive learning environment, everyone wins.

Students will develop a sense of belonging, which will help them learn important social and emotional skills and achieve academic success. Educators will strengthen their relationships with all students and have fewer discipline problems in their classrooms. Both teachers and students will experience less stress and greater satisfaction with their school.

To make this vision a reality, school and district leaders should offer teachers professional learning opportunities related to using culturally responsive practices, creating emotionally supportive classrooms, and using trauma-informed practices.

Shifting discipline practices to focus on teaching may require changing both policies and practices. A new training series from REL Northwest can help schools and districts do that.

Implementing Changes

The series provides resources to help school and district teams use data to identify areas of concern related to the overuse of exclusionary discipline or disproportionality in assigning discipline to student groups, such as students of color or students with disabilities.

The series also helps teams use evidence to identify interventions, develop an action plan, track their effectiveness, and inform improvement decisions. It is meant to complement—not compete with—current school discipline practices and social and emotional learning approaches.

Specifically, the training series provides resources to help school and district teams take the following steps to improve their school discipline policies and practices:

  1. Review school discipline policies and parent handbooks to ensure they address social and emotional learning. These documents provide an important way to communicate your values to students and families and welcome them to your school. They also offer important guidance to schools on how to respond to behavioral issues using proactive teaching approaches and when suspension or expulsion may be considered.
  2. Use data to identify schoolwide problems, as well as equity concerns for student groups. Data will help your school pinpoint problems that require intervention, such as overuse of exclusionary discipline for nonviolent behaviors or disproportionately high rates of suspension for certain student groups. Data will also help your school monitor progress toward reducing these problems and, if necessary, indicate whether your school discipline approach needs to be changed.
  3. Learn the perspectives of students, educators, and families. Understanding what is working to promote a positive, supportive school climate, as well as areas that require improvements and recommendations for making these improvements, requires incorporating the voice of all members of the school community. This is an essential step for successful implementation of school discipline practices.
  4. Use evidence-based practices. When addressing school discipline problems, regardless of whether they affect the entire school or a specific student group, use research-based practices. In addition, be sure the selected practices are a good fit for the culture, needs, and preferences of your school community.