Resisting Punitive School Discipline (In Press)

Elyse Hambacher, University of New Hampshire

This is an Author’s Original Manuscript of an article to be published by Taylor & Francis in International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education.


In addition to stark racial disparities in school achievement, research has consistently revealed that students of color and those from low-income backgrounds are vulnerable to differential and disproportionate rates of punitive school disciplinary sanctions (Skiba, Michael, Nardo, & Peterson, 2000; Skiba et al., 2011; Wallace et al., 2008). These studies highlight a racial discipline gap where black students in particular, experience more punitive discipline than any other racial group. Punitive practices such as suspensions and expulsions are common ways that schools respond to student behavior, despite the fact that they contribute to students losing instructional time, forming negative perceptions of school climate, disengaging, and dropping out of school (Brown & Rodríguez, 2009; Gregory, Skiba, & Noguera, 2010). Exclusionary discipline and its consequent labeling of certain students as troublemakers and non-achievers negatively impacts students’ lives.

Evidence suggests that there is a connection between school-based exclusionary discipline practices and detrimental school and life outcomes, including involvement in the juvenile justice system (Losen, 2014; Skiba, Arredondo, & Williams, 2014). For instance, black people constitute 13% percent of the US population, yet they make up 40% of all inmates in prison and 42% of the death row population. This progression from perceived “troublemaker” to incarcerated felon is referred to as the school-to-prison-pipeline (STPP)—a process that engenders negative life trajectories and social reproduction, as persistently disciplined students become less invested in school because they feel disconnected from the very institutions that are responsible for bolstering their success (Gregory, Skiba, & Noguera, 2010).

While researchers have uncovered teacher stereotyping and differential treatment of students using quantitative measures as explanations for racial disproportionality in discipline (Skiba et al., 2000; Wallace et al., 2008), less is known about the stances and practices of exemplary teachers in responding to issues of discipline. Examining highly effective teachers and how they respond to student behavior is crucial in the elementary grades where the initial identification of a child as a behavior problem is “a process … that often traces back to children’s earliest experiences at school” (Alexander, Entwisle, & Kabbani, 2001, p. 763). Racial bias in school discipline is part of a broader discourse concerning institutional racism where the over-sanctioning of students of color is fueling the STPP by interpreting their behavior as deviant. With this in mind, the study aimed to address the research question: What are the perspectives and instructional practices of exemplary urban elementary teachers who do not use punitive discipline with their students?