Published: October 1, 2021

Our public education system perpetuates the implementation of unfair disciplinary actions on students based on a variety of factors. These factors can include race, ethnicity, housing status, disability status, English language literacy, and gender. While overall rates of exclusionary discipline (e.g., suspension and expulsion) have declined over the last decade, students experiencing homelessness are disproportionately disciplined compared to their housed peers.

For students experiencing homelessness, traditional punishment only escalates conflict due to an increased stress response in the student’s brain and body. Furthermore, compliance-based punishment often weakens students’ relationships to schools instead of helping them learn problem-solving and other positive social-emotional learning skills. The following recommendations outline strategies that can replace traditional zero-tolerance discipline policies.

School district leadership and the Washington State Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction have a responsibility to hold teachers accountable to improve existing disproportionate discipline outcomes and to provide equitable opportunities for all students regardless of their identity. Positive discipline practices focus on relationship-building and prevention, enhances communication, models respect, and embraces natural consequences. COVID-19 exacerbated adversities and traumas experienced among children, families, and communities. Educators have an opportunity to respond with restorative practices rather than punitive, exclusionary actions that further inflict trauma on students.

(Note: Abbreviations following recommendations indicate sources for those recommendations. See the Sources Key below for details.)

Goal 1: Staff support students experiencing homelessness instead of responding to behavioral issues with punitive disciplinary actions.

  1. Require truancy officers to work with McKinney-Vento liaisons before proceeding with filing a truancy petition. (LE)
  2. Incorporate ongoing training for staff regarding homelessness, trauma-informed care, and childhood trauma to inform existing attendance interventions. (LE)
  3. Require ongoing anti-racism training for staff to lessen racial bias within student discipline procedures. (LE, PE)
    • Strategy 1: Challenge behavior policies rooted in white dominant culture by taking other cultural communication styles into account (e.g., call-and-respond, speaking out to connect and show respect, eye contact or lack thereof).
  4. Superintendents and school leadership should adopt non-punitive discipline protocols and fund additional support staff to address students’ behavioral issues. (PE)
  5. Facilitate interventions that bring out the strengths of students, rather than seeing our most vulnerable students from a deficit-based mentality. (LE)
  6. Utilize the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction’s menu of best practices and strategies for student discipline, and follow new discipline laws that prohibit zero-tolerance discipline policies. (PE)
    • Strategy 1: Challenge racial and housing status bias when disciplining students. For example, when students are tardy due to transportation issues, provide flexible modifications that are more understanding of students’ situations. (LE)
    • Strategy 2: Prioritize tending to the emotional and physical well-being of students experiencing homelessness. For example, instead of issuing discipline referrals for sleeping in class, consider they may not have had a safe place to sleep the night prior and provide a space for them to catch up on sleep. (LE, PE)

Goal 2: Teachers and school staff are fully supported in their social-emotional health themselves and get up-to-date training on classroom management skills.

  1. Provide ongoing support for teachers regarding secondary trauma. Supporting teachers can strengthen their emotional bandwidth to positively interact with students and better address their behavioral concerns. (PE)
    • Strategy 1: Create continuous support groups for teachers to build on their classroom management skills. (PE)
  2. Advocate to include extensive trauma-informed training in curricula for Master of Education programs to prepare teachers for positive classroom management techniques. (PE, LE)
    1. Strategy 1: The Equity in Education Coalition is advocating for a cultural competency and anti-bias certificate embedded into Master of Education programs to comprehensively train teachers about anti-racist practices before they are in charge of classrooms. (PE)
  3. Challenge existing teacher-student belief systems and encourage teachers to incorporate non-punitive discipline strategies into their classroom management methods instead. (LE)
  4. Build support from school leadership teams to continuously check in with teachers about how they can more effectively respond to behavioral issues in their classrooms. (PE, LE)

Goal 3: Restorative justice circle methods are incorporated and encourage conversations and building relationships instead of relying on punitive disciplinary measures.

  1. Fund full-time staff positions to focus on restorative justice work in schools. (PE)
  2. School staff can prevent fights by talking with students, providing input on situations, and helping students realize the impact of their actions in schools and in their futures. (PE)
    • Strategy 1: Open dialogues with students about teachers’ behaviors and provide interventions for teachers who give out the most disciplinary referrals. (PE, LE)
  3. Create developmentally appropriate spaces that can be utilized by students and school staff alike to calm their stress response systems. (PE, LE)
  4. Train students to lead restorative justice circles to resolve conflict among peers. (PE)
    • Strategy 1: Washington Building Leaders of Change creates opportunities for students to be trained as restorative justice circle keepers to mediate conflict and repair harm in their communities.
  5. Create opportunities for students’ voices to be heard when making disciplinary decisions. (PE, LE)

Goal 4: Students’ developmental levels are considered when implementing discipline interventions.

  1. Teach students and staff about their neuroanatomy and calming strategies, so they understand what happens in their brains when they become stressed, angry, or anxious. (PE)
  2. Give ongoing opportunities for students and staff to reflect on the repercussions of their actions and to improve on their thinking and behaviors. (LE, PE)
    • Strategy 1: Create practices for students and staff to identify what their unmet needs were during conflict and to reflect on how they could handle situations better next time. (LE)
  3. Provide ongoing training on child development for staff to understand behavior as the primary way students communicate their current state and unmet needs. (PE)
    • Strategy 1: Provide students the space to share feedback on teachers’ behaviors, impacts, and implicit biases, and how they can all be used to leverage power and control over students. (LE)
    • Strategy 2: Pull data to identify which staff are submitting the most referrals and create an accountability system for teachers. (LE)
  4. Give children purpose in the classroom and allow them more opportunities to work in tandem with adults. This can build community, provide hands-on learning, and bring families into communities’ decision-making process. (PE)

Goal 5: Relationship-building with students is prioritized to strengthen school-community bonds and to prevent behavioral issues.

  1. Research shows that behavioral issues are rooted in feeling unheard, not cared for, or misunderstood. Allow time and space during the school day for intentional, authentic check-ins with students to prevent behavioral issues. (PE)
  2. Foster a culture of support in schools by establishing an ecosystem of interdependent staff members. This can help staff to unlearn individualistic and saviorism mentality in our communities. (PE)
    • Strategy 1: Create opportunities for staff to mediate conflict between staff members with restorative justice circles, which model conflict management with peers. (PE)
    • Strategy 2: Fully fund training for staff to learn about trauma-informed supports and reflective processes. Reflective processes sustain change to build a better community. (PE, LE)
  3. Staff and students should work through conflict together. Expulsion and suspension deny this essential process. (PE)
  4. Build partnerships and work with community-based organizations to enrich schools with wraparound student support.
    • Strategy 1: The Asia Pacific Cultural Center, a community- based organization in Tacoma, partners with school districts to provide support for students to address discipline issues.
  5. Create opportunities for authentic partnerships with parents and families, not just when there are behavioral issues about their students to discuss. (LE, PE)
    • Strategy 1: Kent School District is partnering with the South King County Discipline Coalition to conduct family listening sessions where they gather stories, brainstorm strategies for addressing harm, and provide a continuum of accountability throughout the school year. This pilot works to rebuild trust between BIPOC parents and the education system. (LE, PE)
    • Strategy 2: Highline School District has an Academic Parent Teacher Teams pilot program, which helps to minimize students’ behavioral issues by focusing on strengthening connections between families and schools. This WestEd model is collaborative and goes beyond parent-teacher conferences to build authentic partnerships with families.
    • Strategy 3: Lake Washington School District has family and community engagement liaisons. They connect educators and families to talk about academic achievement and discipline and do a great job of honoring families’ and students’ voices when coming up with solutions.

Sources Key

AcronymCategorySources Include:
PEProfessional ExpertiseBuilding Changes staff; school and district staff interviewed through Schoolhouse Washington-funded projects and our Students of Color project
LELived ExpertiseInterviews with with parents, students (including those from our Students of Color project), and school staff in Washington State
MMMixed-methods ResearchBeating the Odds quantitative and qualitative analysis showing association between a practice and better-than-predicted outcomes

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