New Approach to School Discipline May Change Future of Discipline Practices

Challenges with school discipline create a compelling case for change that one UTA researcher wants to tackle.

Monday, Apr 01, 2024 • Written by Monique Bird :

Photo of Ambra Green Working on a LaptopA new model for helping teachers address undesired classroom behaviors may change school discipline in the United States – and, in turn, eliminate harmful ripple effects for young learners, such as poor grades, drug use, and juvenile or adult incarceration.

Dr. Ambra Green, associate professor of special education and interim chair of the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies, has joined a national team of researchers awarded a $3.7 million grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to examine a new approach to discipline that helps districts move beyond suspensions and expulsions. The new model, known as the Inclusive Skill-building Learning Approach, or ISLA, will be tested in 60 middle schools across the country.

The goal?

To improve the relationships and interactions between teachers and students in ways that positively change student behavior and that reduce the need to separate students from either their classroom or school – a method that creates both short-term and long-term consequences for communities and students, such as increased rates of drug use.

“The project addresses a persistent gap within the substance use field and practices in schools that are exclusionary in nature, by evaluating whether upstream interventions that target and improve adolescents’ social contexts can have meaningful impacts on opioid use prevention and prevention of the use of exclusionary practices,” said Green, who is the recipient of a $520,375 sub-award from the University of Oregon's NIH project entitled, “Preventing School Exclusion and Opioid Misuse: Effectiveness of the Inclusive Skillbuilding Learning Approach (ISLA).”

The Case for Change

The evidence highlighting the negative implications of exclusionary discipline is clear.

Nationally, students lost over 11 million days of learning in school due to out-of-school suspensions in the 2015-16 school year alone. Such suspensions have more than doubled since the 1970s, and “students are more than twice as likely to be arrested in the month they are removed” compared to other months, according to research published in the journal of Addictive Behaviors. The same report connected punitive tactics to drug use and labeled the racial disparities as “profound.” And a report published in the American Institutes for Research in 2021 showed that suspensions are often “ineffective at producing positive behavioral change” and have been linked to negative ripple effects such as poor grades, chronic absenteeism, higher dropout rates, lower graduation rates, and incarceration. One study noted that children who attend schools with high suspension rates are “significantly more likely to be arrested and jailed as adults – especially for Black and Hispanic boys.”

In some reports, children as young as 5 years old have been suspended.

“It’s known as the preschool to prison pipeline,” said Green, adding that she hopes “districts will see this as an intervention based in science to get to the function or root of a student’s behavior to see what the student is trying to communicate and how the teacher can meet their needs.”

For the six-state study, Green was awarded $500,000 to run the Texas site – helping recruit and support ten middle schools with training and coaching in the Inclusive Skill-building Learning Approach. The method is grounded in positive, preventative classroom strategies for all students. And it layers on additional support to help “promote positive student-teacher relationships, improve student behavior and educator responses, minimize biases in educator responses, and reduce the amount of instructional time lost due to exclusionary discipline,” said Green.

She added that this project aligns with much of her other research – helping to train and support teachers in ways that benefit both teachers and K-12 students alike and district discipline policy development.