From Discipline to Dialogue: Student Voice, Teacher Supports

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. 

erin russ photo for site

Erin Russ, Program Associate

Throughout this blog series, we’ve been looking at the problem of discipline disparities and exploring the research, policy, and practice that creates positive classroom relationships, ultimately reducing exclusionary disciplinary practices. Keeping students in the classroom and engaged in the learning process is important for their educational success. It is also important that young people feel empowered to make decisions about their future with the support of adults who care for them. Creating opportunities for students to be heard, and for teachers to be supported as they teach and influence students should be at the center of conversations about reducing exclusionary discipline and its disparate minority impact.


Youth Courts

I began the series by sharing the story of one of my former students, Alex. When he came to me nearly five years ago with the idea to start a student court, he was frustrated with the discipline situation at our school. Most of all, he believed that students should have the opportunity to voice their side of the story, as the disciplinary process was an otherwise one-way street. Together, he and I researched our options and eventually reached out to the National Association of Youth Courts (NAYC). NAYC is a national membership organization for the over 1,000 youth courts nationwide. In addition to schools, operators include juvenile courts and private non-profit organizations. Youth courts are not new, but have existed mostly in the community outside of schools. Now schools and districts are exploring how these courts can give students a voice in the discipline process.


One way schools are giving students the opportunity to be heard is through school climate surveys. In one survey, an urban public charter school with a diverse student body asked students to fill in two simple phrases – “I feel bad when my teachers…” and “I know my teachers care about me when they…” Over 170 responses were collected. They were simple and telling, and some of the most common responses are below:

“I feel bad when my teachers….”

  • “Yell”
  • “Raise their voice”
  • “Disrespect me”

“I know my teachers care about me when they…”

  • “Help me out”
  • “Listen to non-school related things”
  • “Push me to do better”

Students know they are cared for when teachers listen, help them, and push them. Students feel bad when teachers yell and show signs of distress. This is only a snapshot of the dynamic between teachers and students at one school, but it encourages us to ask questions about the needs of both in the classroom.

District and Community Opportunities

How are schools and districts creating opportunities for students to be heard, and for teachers to be supported in the classroom, in order to ultimately reduce exclusionary discipline and disparate impact on minorities? Several places are re-thinking what “discipline” means and expanding opportunities for student voice and dialogue with adults. In each case, the program or initiative is focused on using student misconduct as an opportunity to build upon student assets, not amplify their deficits (for more on Positive Youth Development, see the John W. Gardner Center’s work in partnership with Redwood City, California).

  • Fairfax County Public Schools in Virginia has established a Restorative Justice Program for older youth who receive their first suspension. The three goals of the program are accountability, character development, and school and community safety. Specialists work with students to help them understand the effects of their behavior on others and work to resolve those issues. Student participation is voluntary, and specialists also spend time educating teachers about restorative justice practices.
  • Denver Public Schools are re-thinking the use of School Resource Officers (SROs) to be partners in conflict resolution on school grounds rather than catalysts for the criminal justice system. In 2013, Denver Public Schools signed an Intergovernmental Agreement with the Denver Police Department that outlines the role of SROs, including support they will give and receive as part of the school system. This type of agreement is another way that districts are encouraging more opportunities for conversation between students and staff, rather than the use of exclusionary discipline.
  • The Discipline Disparities Research-to-Practice Collaborative is a three-year initiative whose purpose is to translate evidence-based practices for state education agencies, districts, and schools. Their research is focused on reducing the discipline gap in schools and encouraging policies that support positive interventions.

AYPF believes that student success along the pathway to postsecondary education and the workforce begins through engagement in the classroom. Caring, supportive relationships, opportunities for youth voice, and policies that support these practices are important. We hope the conversation around student discipline will continue to evolve and that policymakers, practitioners and researchers will explore opportunities to create positive dialogue between educators and students.

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The American Youth Policy Forum (AYPF), a nonprofit, nonpartisan professional development organization based in Washington, DC, provides learning opportunities for policy leaders, practitioners, and researchers working on youth and education issues at the national, state, and local levels. AYPF events and publications are made possible by contributions from philanthropic foundations. For a complete list, click here.