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October 1, 2021

After a Year of Trauma for All, How Can We Discipline More Fairly?

Students of color are often disciplined more harshly. We can't let that happen this year.
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Classroom Management
School Culture
October 2021 Jackson thumbnail: A teenage student smiling outside of a school.
Credit: October 2021
Over a year ago, many of us saw on screen the public murder of George Floyd, a Black man accused of using a counterfeit $20 bill. This story played out on national television, YouTube, and elsewhere on the internet. A police officer kneeled on Floyd's neck for over eight minutes until he suffocated to death. Even when Floyd lay motionless, the officer refused to take his knee off his neck as the paramedics checked Floyd's pulse—to find none. The world watched Floyd plead for his life, even yelling out to his deceased mother. This happened in the midst of a pandemic, which so far has claimed the lives of more than 600,000 Americans.

Kids Are Facing Trauma—Including in School

The Floyd incident caused severe anxiety in a lot of people, especially children and adults of color. These types of tragic incidents tend to happen to Black and Brown people more often than any other group. Experiencing or witnessing violent events like this can lead to trauma—and we must realize that the events of last year may have caused trauma in many of our students.
There are four ways to experience trauma: directly, watching something happen to someone else, hearing about something that happened to someone else, or repeated exposure to a stressful experience. I know the Floyd incident—and many similar incidents I've personally witnessed or experienced over the years—has affected me and my Black friends. I've been traumatized over and over in my life, including at school. I had to push through pain, obtain my education, and try to be a model student while many of my friends were killed (Carlos Jefferson, Michael Butler, Tony Binion, Larry Shotwell, Billy Williams, Anthony Day, and Monterrio Holder, to name a few). I watched as many of my peers were disciplined harshly and suspended from school or (later) given long prison sentences for minor offenses. I often wonder whether these friends' outcomes would've been different if they'd been treated differently by educators.
My Black friends' experiences of being "pushed out" of school are common. Data from the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights show that in the 2011–2012 school year, Black students—especially males—were more likely to be suspended than white students. Black male students represented 8 percent of enrolled students but accounted for 25 percent of students who received an out-of-school suspension. In all, 1.2 million Black and Latino males were suspended from K–12 schools in this country in the 2011–2012 academic year (Smith & Harper, 2015). Educator and author Pedro Noguera (2008) notes that Black males are often seen as being generally threatening, disruptive, uncooperative, and defiant, while their white male counterparts are more likely to be seen as engaging in specific discipline issues or violations, like smoking or fighting—not as "trouble" overall.

Instead of receiving empathy and care, I was reprimanded. Instead of being affirmed, I was told that kids like me weren't college material.

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Robert Jackson

The disparities in how Black and white students are disciplined are real, and explain why so many Black males are suspended, sometimes for lesser offenses than those committed by their white counterparts. The data don't lie. I'm sure some students deserved to be suspended. But too many are disciplined inappropriately, suspended, or even end up in the criminal justice system because an educator didn't have the tools to prevent such outcomes from happening. We must ask, when students are suspended, where's the possibility for rehabilitation? How can kids improve their behavior if they are never taught? How can a student learn within an institution that has policies in place that lead them to fail, such as "three strikes and you're out" rules? To tell someone they have three chances, and then, if they don't get it right, proclaim you're done with them is degrading and cruel. Learning within such a situation takes an emotional toll.
The mistreatment I received from educators when I was in school is still fresh in my mind. Teachers' tone changed when interacting with students of color. Instead of being supportive, they sounded angry. I and many other Black students assumed they were upset because they had to teach us. Discipline was harsh and swift, with paddling, suspensions, and public humiliation the norm.
In 7th grade, a coach slammed me up against the wall in front of my friends and teammates. It traumatized me. To this day, when I think about the physical and mental pain I felt, I wish I could have somehow defended myself. That coach should have been fired, or at least disciplined—but I was the one who was made to feel inferior and inadequate. Another time, I said hello to a kid who spoke to me in the lunch line. A white female teacher snatched me by the arm and put me in the back of the line behind several classes that had just arrived. By the time I got my lunch, I only had a few minutes to eat. I was angry, hurt, and hungry. I don't recall that teacher ever explaining why I was removed.
I also remember the unwarranted and disturbing labels teachers put on me: aggressivelazya troublemakerwon't amount to anything. Yes, I heard this from actual educators who were supposed to educate me and motivate me. Instead, their words tore down my self-esteem.

When Anxiety Looks Like Defiance

Many students carry the burden of anxiety and depression into school. This was true even before COVID-19. Two years ago, seven in ten U.S. teens said anxiety and depression are a major problem among people their age in their community, according to a Pew Research Center survey (Horowitz & Graf, 2019). The numbers have likely increased during the pandemic, as many students report feeling lonely. Pre-criminalization, fear of gun violence, harassment, parental incarceration, and worry for their families' financial stability—all experienced more by Black and Latino students—can intensify isolation and loneliness.
Students' negative emotions sometimes surface in ways that look like defiance or disrespect. Some educators misinterpret fearful behavior as aggressive behavior or as kids wanting to cause trouble. But children who have experienced trauma need to know that someone cares. Some may need professional help.
I was one of those children. But instead of receiving empathy and care, I was reprimanded. Instead of being affirmed, I was told that kids like me weren't college material. I actually had an educator tell me I needed to work on learning a trade because I wasn't "college material" and would eventually be working with my hands. I'm not good at working with my hands. Despite her disparaging statement, I knew I was capable—but imagine a student who's more impressionable. Such an interaction could change the trajectory of a student's life, for the worse.

"Servanthood Spirit"

This fall, most schools will go back to in-person learning after 15 months or so of mostly virtual learning. Some students will come back stressed out, anxious, or depressed. Besides the stresses of learning online, some may have been neglected, overworked, or even abused by parents. Many will be behind academically. It will take patience, kindness, self-control, and a positive attitude to help them have a positive reentry. We'll need caring and humility in our hearts to bring hurt students back to a sense of normalcy.
One word that comes to mind in dealing with students now is servanthood. Servanthood is the act of giving yourself to and for others, seeking to meet the needs of others, not your own. Leadership requires servanthood, especially when educating students and motivating them to be great. You can develop a servanthood spirit as you engage—and discipline—students this fall:
Stay humble. Live in your humility. Stay out of your pride. Don't take what kids do or say personally. Respond with empathy, understanding there's a deeper issue that needs to be addressed.
Offer compassionate discipline. Disciplining with care means explaining what a student did wrong and helping him understand accountability—and that you will give him another chance to get it right. It may mean being transparent about issues you faced when you were a student and how you overcame them. Be the example you want to see by offering students understanding and practical suggestions, not more anger and frustration. For instance, if a student begins yelling in your classroom, instead of kicking them out, walk through seven questions commonly used in restorative practices that change the trajectory of school discipline:
  1. What happened?
  2. How did it happen?
  3. What part did you play in it?
  4. How were you affected by what you did?
  5. Who else was affected by what you did?
  6. What can you do to repair the harm?
  7. What do you need to do to make it right?1
Face your shortcomings. Identify some weaker areas you want to work on, such as a short temper or tendency toward negative thoughts. Ask a trusted colleague, reflect carefully, or watch yourself on video to help you do this. Consider how those shortcomings affect your relationship with students. How might you improve in one of these areas?
Be at peace. Don't let anything or anyone compromise your joy. Protect your peace—but protect your students' peace, too, by checking your tension at the door. Give yourself a moment to recover after a tense interaction or situation. Take breaks as needed, vent to someone, or meditate regularly.

Check Your Biases!

Part of humbly serving others is understanding where you might have a bias or blind spot. Everyone has biases, often unconscious ones, triggered by things like race or by emotions like fear, anxiety, or envy. A biased perception can become a self-fulfilling prophecy, and teachers' discipline styles have been shown to differ depending on a student's race (Riddle & Sinclair, 2019). The key is to be aware of biases and how they affect your interactions with students—and try to get past them. Here are four suggestions:
Watch your word choice. Words are extremely important. Words can help or hurt students; when a child hears something repeated often, they start believing it. So be mindful of your words. My 2nd grade teacher, Mrs. Sangster, one of the most effective teachers I've had, always told students, "You matter," "you are somebody," and "you are smart." Those words, spoken more than 40 years ago, still resonate with me and my former classmates.
Avoid stereotyping. Racial microaggressions are everyday insults sent by people who are unaware of the messages they are sending. One way to avoid microaggressions is to consciously avoid stereotyping kids. Don't assume that just because a student comes from a tough, low-income neighborhood, they don't want to learn. Don't assume that a student coming from an affluent household has it all together. You won't always know their circumstances. Get to know students. Ask questions to gain a deeper understanding of each student's situation.
Be sure your messages reflect your intentions. If you want all your students to be successful, your messages and actions should reflect that. If they don't, students will pick up on it. What kind of energy are you feeding your students? Do you start every day with a positive phrase or affirmation? Do you tell students you believe in them—and show it? Frequently express your positive desires for your students. Be consistent with that message, no matter the circumstances.
Prioritize relationships. Build healthy relationships with students—through caring, respect, fairness, empathy, and support. Forming relationships strengthens trust and eliminates anxiety on both sides. It creates a healthier working environment. You can see the impact of developing relationships when former students come back to see you and tell you where they are in their lives. It's a joy to hear their positive memories of interactions with you as well as what they learned from you.
Correct false narratives. Another way to combat bias—and perhaps the problem of harsher discipline for Black and Brown kids—is to display positive images of men and women of color around classrooms and the school. Students and educators need to see positive images of Black and Brown adults besides athletes and entertainers. They should see doctors, lawyers, educators, police officers, etc. All students need to learn the stories of Black history, Latino history, and Asian history. One reason biases form is that people don't understand each other, so they make judgements based on false narratives, shallow media accounts, or the influence of family and friends.

Avoid Stereotyping

Don't assume that just because a student comes from a tough, low-income neighborhood, they don't want to learn. Don't assume that a student coming from an affluent household has it all together.

Part of Cultural Competence

To be a culturally competent educator means more than embracing students' diversity. It means having a system of discipline built on healthy relationships, trust, respect, empathy, and accountability—not on harsh punishment. This not only creates a positive school culture; it helps students perform at higher levels—which increases internal stability and elevates the institution. Especially now, let's discipline all our students in ways that show we care.

Related Resource

Read more from Robert Jackson in Becoming the Educator They Need: Strategies, Mindsets, and Beliefs for Supporting Male Black and Latino Students.


Horowitz, J. M., & Graf, N. (2019). Most U.S. teens see anxiety and depression as a major problem among their peers. Washington, D.C.: Pew Research Center.

Noguera, P. A. (2008). The trouble with Black boys: The role and influence of environment and cultural factors on the academic performance of African American males. New York: Wiley and Sons.

Riddle, T., & Sinclair, S. (2019, April 23). Racial disparities in school-based disciplinary practices are associated with county-level rates of racial bias. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Smith, E. J., & Harper, S. (2015). Disproportionate impact of K–12 school suspension and expulsion on Black students in southern states. Philadelphia, PA: Center for Study of Race and Equity in Education.

End Notes

1 For more information on using these questions, see the July 27, 2021 post "What Teachers Need to Know about Restorative Justice."

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