From Discipline To Dialogue: Relationships Matter

This blog post is part of a series in which AYPF is exploring responses from policymakers, practitioners, and researchers to the problem of discipline disparities in K-12 education.

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Anne Gregory, Rutgers University

An African American fourth grader lit up with curiosity and an eagerness to learn in the library with me. He was interested in learning how books were catalogued. Then, together we returned to his classroom. He visibly shifted in his body language. He slouched and dragged his feet as he walked over to his desk, which was set off in the corner at a considerable distance from his peers. The fourth grader had been referred to me for behavior problems in the classroom. His teacher voiced her anger at him as she described his disruptive behavior. As she spoke, I mentally kept the vision of him in the library side by side with her description of him. The dueling portraits of that fourth grade African American boy have propelled my research over the last decade.


Early Insights

In an early 2004 study, I found that most teachers embraced student-centered theories about why discipline problems occur. Such theories lend themselves to assumptions about the stability of negative behavior within the individual student (an assumption that seemed to be held by the fourth grade teacher described above). To test this pervasive assumption, I launched an investigation into the consistency of adolescents’ negative behavior across classroom contexts. I conducted a large-scale review of discipline records at an urban high school. I found that the over-representation of African American students was largely due to referrals for “defiance.” I also found that variability in patterns of defiance referral was more common than was consistency of referral across multiple adults. Thus, a majority of students had, what might be called, situationally-specific referral patterns linked to some adults and not others. In other words, most students experienced a range of adult interactions across their different classrooms. In another study, I also found that defiance-referred high school students tended to be perceived differently across their teachers. Those perceived as defiant and uncooperative by some of their teachers had other teachers who perceived them in a more positive light. That same study also found that students who reported unfair treatment with a particular teacher were more likely to receive a discipline referral and be perceived as defiant and uncooperative by that teacher. Thus, the students also detected the negative dynamic with specific teachers. Together, these studies showed that “locating” the oppositionality solely within the African American adolescent falsely reinforces a deficit perspective and simplifies the setting-sensitive and interactive nature of student behavior.

Relationships Matter

For discipline-referred students, relationships matter. I found in a 2008 study that many teachers successfully engaged the very same African American students who were perceived as “defiant” by other teachers. Teachers perceived as caring (supportive) and holding high academic expectations (structure) had student trust in and obligation to their authority. These teachers demonstrated an authoritative style. Another 2008 study showed that teachers who reported using a relational approach to discipline were more likely to have students who exhibited lower defiant behavior and higher cooperation than those teachers who did not report using such an approach. The relationship-oriented teachers were intentional about building emotional connections with students in order to elicit cooperative behavior from their students. From these studies, I learned that good teacher-student relationships, including with African American students perceived as “defiant” in some of their classrooms, are fostered by teachers who are “warm demanders”—they expect the best, exercise their authority, and demonstrate care for their students. The findings also suggested that in order to leverage change in the entrenched racial disparities in school discipline, we need to focus on building strong relationships in classrooms.

Continuing Research

To that end, I work with colleagues from the University of Virginia on a teacher professional development model called “My Teaching Partner-Secondary” (MTP-S). It is a coaching model in which veteran teachers pair with current teachers, view videotaped footage of their instruction throughout the school year, and use an empirically-validated observational tool to identify aspects of effective (or ineffective) instruction within the video footage. In our first randomized controlled trial (RCT), we found that the program raised achievement and increased student engagement. The second and most recent RCT was conducted more recently with a new group of teachers and students and showed after one year of coaching that MTP-S teachers eliminated the racial discipline gap between African American students and students from other racial/ethnic groups. Recent analyses showed that the effects were durable and robust. The “gap-reducing” effects were replicated in the second year of coaching. I have been heartened by these findings. It suggests that teacher professional development focused on improving instruction and relationships in the classroom has the potential to disrupt persistent racial disparities in school discipline. It offers us new directions to ensure that all students, especially those from historically marginalized or vulnerable groups, experience their classrooms as engaging and supportive learning communities.

Dr. Anne Gregory is an associated professor in Applied Psychology at Rutgers University. To read more about her research visit:


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