4 Powerful Ways to Reduce Racism and Discrimination in Schools

July 29, 2015
Open book in a classroom setting

It’s hard to maintain professionalism when you’re dealing with students who present challenging behaviors. While teachers’ and staffs’ primary responsibility is to teach academic content, challenging behaviors can interfere with accomplishing this goal.

It’s even more difficult to deal with challenging behaviors of students with disabilities and/or with students who are racially, ethnically, and/or culturally different from the teacher or caregiver.

This difficulty can decrease the ability to maintain professionalism, especially when there’s a lack of understanding of the diversity of students. Sometimes students push a staff member’s buttons just because they’re different.

Nonviolent Crisis Intervention® training guidelines include that staff should:

  • Control their own response to the acting-out person
  • Not overreact to the acting-out person
  • Find positive outlets for the negative energy they absorb during a crisis

In discussing the issue of race and discrimination with staff, I have found that it’s helpful to offer them strategies to reduce stress and maintain professionalism—strategies that can be employed before and after a crisis.

The Casey Family Programs organization has included strategies for having courageous conversations about race, ethnicity, and culture in its training for working with children in foster care. If personal identity is important to understanding how to help children in foster care be successful, these same strategies can be helpful in helping staff maintain their professionalism.

Casey Family Programs defines courageous conversations as dialogues that engage others—in spite of interpersonal discomfort—in order to challenge the assumptions, biases, and accepted structures of racism.

The four strategies for having courageous conversations are:

  1. Stay Engaged
  2. Expect and Accept Non-Closure
  3. Speak Your Truth
  4. Experience Discomfort

When these strategies are employed, individuals are able to discuss how they feel about a situation.

Smiling man and woman in front of bookshelf

This process can help staff prepare for a behavior crisis with a student with a different background by discussing some of the issues around diversity before and after the crisis. This process can then help staff maintain their professionalism and support the CPI principles of Care, Welfare, Safety, and SecuritySM.

In a classroom setting, teachers and staff often have to set limits with students. If a student continues to be noncompliant and becomes belligerent, then staff have to intervene. When a student has a disability that prevents them from stopping when given a directive, the staff will more likely have to employ Nonviolent Crisis Intervention® techniques.

If the student’s race, ethnicity, and/ or culture are different, there may be a tendency to employ more restrictive interventions more readily. Discipline may also be administered with a no-tolerance attitude. Current research indicates that students with disabilities and students of color receive more in-school and out-of-school suspensions than their peers. This can escalate the crisis and damage the relationship between the student and the staff.

When an agency’s data indicates that there is an excessive use of suspension for students with disabilities and students of color, courageous conversation strategies can be used to create a dialogue. And dialogue provides staff with a professional development opportunity that can support them with maintaining their professionalism.

1. Stay Engaged

The first courageous conversation strategy is a personal commitment that staff make regardless of the behavior of others. Staying engaged means remaining morally, emotionally, intellectually, and socially involved in the dialogue.

It also means not letting your heart or mind “check out” of the conversation while you leave your body in place.

When staff stay engaged, they can hear what others have to say and they can process their own thoughts and feelings. This strategy also helps staff stay engaged when they’re working with students—to the degree that they can “hear” what each student is saying. They can be nonjudgmental when listening to students, and they can be with students—not just in their own heads.

2. Expect and Accept Non-Closure

The second strategy prepares staff to recognize that they will not reach closure in their racial understanding or in their interracial interactions. Normally, we deal with challenges by searching for solutions.

However, the solution is revealed in the process of dialogue itself. Dialogues must be a continuous process.

This type of professional development can be helpful in reducing stress, which lends itself to staff maintaining professionalism. Growth is a process and not a single event. When staff recognize and embrace this fact, they are more likely to allow the process to proceed in students as well. Student behavior will not be corrected in one setting; it requires a process.

3. Speak Your Truth

The third strategy in courageous conversations about race requires a willingness to take risks. Speaking Your Truth means being honest about your thoughts, feelings, and opinions, and not just saying what you perceive others want to hear.

Speaking Your Truth allows staff to vent in a safe and nonpunitive setting. Further, it allows staff to share their true feelings about the behaviors of the students they serve. Issues around a particular disability or a lack of understanding and exposure to a particular race or ethnicity can be openly discussed.

This strategy also affords staff an opportunity to gather relevant information. When individuals understand each other better, they can build productive relationships.

Relationships can be foundations for helping students of all racial/ethnic/cultural backgrounds grow and change in areas of need.

When staff have an ongoing opportunity to speak their truth, the pressure does not have to build up when they have challenges with student behavior. Professionalism is in fact more likely to be maintained.

Teacher and student in wheelchair in front of blackboard

4. Experience Discomfort

Because of the problematic status of racial conditions in our society, courageous conversations necessarily create discomfort for staff. Staff have to push themselves to have real dialogues—the kind that may make them uncomfortable, but can lead to growth. This strategy requires that staff open up and examine their core racial beliefs, values, perceptions, and behaviors.

Know That Growth Is an Ongoing Process for Both Students and Staff

Some staff may need several sessions before they are able to have courageous conversations fully. However, the dialogue facilitators should be trained to allow individual differences.

When staff can have courageous conversations with fellow coworkers about students who present challenges due to behavior, disability, and/or race, professional and personal growth can take place.

Further, when staff have to deal with students from diverse backgrounds, this growth is likely to show in how they handle the student without taking what happens personally.

Professionalism can be maintained and staff stress will be more manageable as well. Additionally, student behavior change has a better rate of success when staff and students have positive relationships.


CPI (2012). Instructor manual for the Nonviolent Crisis Intervention® training program. Milwaukee, WI: Author.

Breaking Schools' Rules: A Statewide Study of How School Discipline Relates to Students' Success and Juvenile Justice Involvement. July 2011. Council of State Governments Justice Center. The Public Policy Research Institute, Texas A&M University.

Knowing Who You Are. August 24, 2010, Casey Family Programs.

About the Author

Diann Scroggins, M. A., is a licensed specialist in school psychology and a Master Level Nonviolent Crisis Intervention® Instructor for the Dallas Independent School District. Throughout her 27 years with the district, she has served in positions including Behavior Specialist, Program Coordinator, ECI Director, and Instructional Specialist.

Diann provides training to teachers and parents and is also a private consultant providing customized training for parents and professionals. She also serves children and families as a member of Dallas County Center for the Elimination of Disproportionality and Disparity Advisory Committee, the Early Childhood Consortium of North Texas, the Dallas County Alliance of Drug Endangered Children, and the Texas Alliance of Infant Mental Health.

She has trained parents of children in Head Start of Greater Dallas that are suspected of having disabilities. Diann is a member of the Association of Texas Professional Educators, National Alliance of Black School Educators, the Dallas-Ft. Worth Regional Association of School Psychologists, and has presented at a variety of conferences and workshops.

Originally published in theJournal of Safe Management of Disruptive and Assaultive Behavior, Fall 2013. © 2013 CPI. CPI Certified Instructors, log in to read more JSM articles.

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