Bias in school discipline: When the teacher says your child is “acting out”
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It’s an all-too-familiar situation for many families of color. The phone rings. It’s the school calling to say your child has been “acting out” in class again. In this episode about bias in school discipline, host Julian Saavedra talks with two guests:
Busola Saka, a parent and the creator of Instagram’s @BlackBoyThrive
Jolie Battista, a former special education teacher who is an expert on positive behavioral interventions and supports
Listen as they discuss key terms like implicit bias, significant disproportionality, and manifestation determination. Find out why these terms are extra important to know if you’re the parent of a child of color. And get actionable tips to help advocate for kids who have learning and thinking differences like ADHD and dyslexia.
Related resources from Understood
Data sources and other information
Why, really, are so many Black kids suspended? (Education Week)
Significant disproportionality in special education: Trends among Black students (National Center for Learning Disabilities)
New guidance helps schools support students with disabilities and avoid discriminatory use of discipline (U.S. Department of Education)
Busola: It was just one call after another, to where I would be at work and I can't function. You know, every time my phone rings, I'm like, "Oh, is it the school?" And if it is the school, my heart literally sinks because I'm like, "What is it now?"
Julian: From the Understood Podcast Network, this is "The Opportunity Gap." Kids of color who have ADHD and other common learning differences often face a double stigma. But there's a lot that families can do to address the opportunity gap in our communities. This podcast explains key issues and offers tips to help you advocate for your child. My name is Julian Saavedra. I'm a father of two and an assistant principal in Philadelphia, where I've spent nearly 20 years working in public schools. I'll be your host.
Today's episode focuses on that all familiar moment when you get a call from the teacher saying "Your child is acting out in class." We're going to talk a little bit about why this happens so often to so many families of color. We've all heard the term "implicit bias," but we're going to talk about how it can affect kids as young as pre-K. But mostly we're going to focus on what you can do about it. What questions can you ask when you get that call from school? What can families do to help teachers be proactive rather than reactive?
To help me unpack all of this, I have two amazing guests for today's show. We're going to start with an amazing parent and then talk to an amazing educator and get actionable tips from both of them. Let's dive in. I'd like to introduce Busola Saka. She is a mother of a second grader and the founder of the organization called Black Boy Thrive. Welcome, Busola.
Busola: Thank you, Julian.
Julian: Let's talk about your experience. I mean, so from what I gather, we're both parents and we're both parents of little ones. I have a second grader, a daughter, and my son is in third grade. And, you know, sometimes we get those phone calls from school. We get those phone calls. And I'm on both ends because I'm also an assistant principal. So I'm the one making the calls sometimes. But now I get to see what it's like to hear them, too. You started getting phone calls from your son's school when he was in pre-K. Can you tell us about what the phone calls were about and what that was like?
Busola: Yes, it was pre-K. He was 4 years old, and I had just accepted a role as a communications director at a nonprofit. And I would get phone calls in the middle of the day. And it's "Can you talk to him? He's not listening." And they put him on the phone and I'm like, "What is going on? What's happening?" But it was just these phone calls like, "Well, I can't handle him. Can you come and get him?" It was just one call after another to where I would be at work and I can't function. Every time my phone rings, I'm like, "Oh, is it the school?" And if it is the school, my heart literally sinks because I'm like, "What is it now?" So those phone calls were very stressful. They actually were one of the reasons why I decided to resign from my role at the time.
Julian: So you stopped your job?
Busola: I did. I resigned right before the pandemic started. It was just to the point where I just couldn't be at work and focus with the phone ringing all the time about one thing or another. So it was definitely very stressful.
Julian: I can imagine. Why don't you tell the listeners a little bit about your son?
Busola: My son is hilarious. He is very intuitive, very smart, very sensitive, very active. He loves soccer. He loves basketball. He's 7 years old now. And at the time when we started the public school system, he was 4. He can get very excited and animated and it's kind of hard to bring him down after he gets excited. But he's just a really great kid and it was very stressful for him.
When I would ask him how his day was, he would go, "Well, did Miss So-and-so call you?" He would ask me that question first to determine how his day went. That was very concerning for me because I'm like, "I want to hear from you. Why do you think that you're in trouble every time I ask you how your day went?" So it was definitely a stressful situation for him as well as me.
Julian: Let me ask, was he acting like this at home, too?
Busola: No. And that was one of the concerns that we had. He was fine at home. The teachers would send work home because he didn't finish it in class, and he would do it in 5 minutes. And he's done. And I'm like, "I thought they said you didn't get this. Why are you doing it so quickly?"
Julian: Sounds like this is a lot like my son.
Busola: Is your son very social?
Julian: He is. But sometimes he gets distracted. And when he has to sit and focus, he'll get the work done. He'll do it in 5 minutes. And I'm like, "You should have finished this school at school." "But Dad, I was having fun." Oh, OK. I understand. You know, and again, for the listeners that might not be able to see us, both Bulosa and I are Black folks, and this is a young man that is a Black boy. And he was experiencing this type of — I don't want to call it labeling, but it seems like there was some implicit bias that was coming out in the way that his teachers were interacting with him. Do you want to tell us a little bit more about the suspensions and the labeling that was happening with them and how race might have played a role in that?
Busola: Absolutely. So it was a class of 24 children and he's the only Black child in the class. There was definitely some implicit bias going on, which I didn't really know about or understand until after the fact. So it was one of those things where it's like, "What about the other kids?" Or "Are you calling their parents? What's going on here?"
I think what did it for me was when we had to go meet with the principal, which I'm sure you've had many meetings like that before. And the teacher said "He got aggressive with me." As a Black parents, when you hear that your Black son was described as aggressive, that is not very settling. Because this is in pre-K. He was 4 years old. So you hear he was aggressive and you're like "Aggressive how? What does that mean?" We had to go see doctors about and sit in the principal's office about. Talk to the child psychologist about at the school. It was just a lot of situations where normal behavior started to become a problem. And then you wonder, what about the other kids? Are they sitting — 4-year-olds don't sit still for long periods of time.
So there was definitely that implicit bias going on, and that really led me to do a lot of research on that topic. And that's when I stumbled on the Yale research, where it says bias against Black men starts in pre-K. And that shook me. And it made sense. It clicked. When we start to see Black boys this way when they're so young, that follows them throughout their entire education, when they get jobs or whatever they decide to do. That stigma follows them throughout their — throughout the system.
Julian: I mean, I'm just floored that an educator had the nerve to call your son aggressive at 4 years old — 4 years old! Right? Like that — and thank goodness that he had a mother that was willing to go to bat for him from the beginning and understood how she could support him. Was there anything else that was occurring in relation to his academics or his ability to do academic work?
Busola: Not at all. He's a very smart kid when it comes to academics. He would, like I said, do his homework in 5 minutes and he's done and he would get it all right. So he was paying attention. He was listening. He was learning. But he was not learning or paying attention or listening in the way that we expect. And this is when he was in pre-K and we were asked to go test him for ADHD, to have him evaluated.
Julian: And the school the school made that recommendation?
Busola: Yes, the school did. Then you run into getting him evaluated and doctor's offices or a psychologist are like "We don't evaluate until they're like 6." So for us, it was this very frustrating waiting game. Is something wrong, or is something not wrong? And then when do we find out if something's wrong? And then what do we do in the meantime? That period of time where he still has to go to school and we're still getting these phone calls and we're still running into these issues.
Julian: Tell us how you went from that experience to then deciding to start a nonprofit specifically focusing on our Black boys thriving?
Busola: I started Black Boy Thrive on Instagram during the pandemic. It was the summer. I had quit my job. I was home with nothing else to do. Chased my two kids around.
Julian: Well you're raising a a baby. So you got that. That's a full-time job in and of itself.
Busola: And they were, I think, 5 and 3, or almost 5 and 3 at the time. And so doing some research and then deciding, hey, someone needs to talk about this. I don't see anyone talking about this. I don't see or hear parents' voices. And I tell you, when I launched the platform first on Instagram, I got so many DMs, so many text messages, so many phone calls from moms like me, from Black moms who are like, "Oh my God, I'm so glad that we are having this conversation. I'm so glad that this is — you're raising this issue because I went through this. I went through that."
And I heard stories of people saying their Black son was kicked out of daycare because he was bigger than the other kids and the other kids felt threatened. You hear stories of people saying, "You know, my son was holding a pencil really tight and teacher thought he was going to stab her with a pencil." It's a really big issue that we really need to pay attention to. We really need to come together as a community about and make sure that our Black boys are getting the education they need without feeling like they're being watched all the time. Or feeling like they have these labels on them and they start to hate school.
Julian: Busola, if I were to ask you the answer to that question, how do we help our Black boys thrive?
Busola: Build a relationship with the teachers. I walk my kids right to the door of the classroom. I have a quick conversation with the teacher every single morning, just to let them know that I'm involved, that I'm here, that if they have any questions, they can always reach out to me. They all have my phone number. Call me. Let's talk through whatever challenges that you're having. And it's very important to have that face-to-face time with teachers, even if it's 2 minutes every day or an email at the end of the week just to check in, let them know that you are involved.
Julian: I love that you named it Black Boy Thrive, because that's the goal. We want them not only to just be OK. We want them to be their best selves. We want them to thrive because they deserve it. And we know they deserve it.
My next guest is an educator with insider tips for parents. Jolie Battista spent 15 years as a special education teacher. She also worked at the state level, training teachers how to use positive behavior support systems. So Jolie, I've heard in my career and I'm sure you've heard of it a lot: Sometimes schools or adults will use the phrase "acting out." What do you think about that phrase?
Jolie: When I hear the term "acting out" and I hear it as an educator, think of most people were disciplining students that are acting out because we're only looking at the behavior. But we're not really thinking about the acting out. The message behind the acting out. The child is acting out in some way because that's the way they're communicating how they're feeling. Because maybe the kid's young and they don't know how to express "I'm angry" or "I'm feeling this way." So they throw a desk or throw a chair. But there really is, I think, more meaning behind the term "acting out" than we typically think of.
Julian: I mean, I tend to think of it as, you know, the metaphor of of the iceberg, right? Like you only see the very tip of the iceberg. But there's so many things underneath the water that unless you're diving deep, you have no idea how large that iceberg is. And what are some of the most common reasons kids choose to behave in certain ways? What do you think they're trying to communicate?
Jolie: In my time of being a teacher, I would see, you know, the most vivid picture would be a student, you know, that has struggle reading. And so, you know, sometimes teachers, we call out, we put we put a kid on blast, if you will, and say, read the next paragraph, Julian. And it's like, "I don't want to be embarrassed in front of my peers. I'm not reading this." There's so many other different scenarios that you can think of: the kid that likes to get attention, so they're cracking jokes or making fun of the teacher or the paraprofessional.
Julian: Yeah, I mean, everything you're mentioning, they fall into typical behaviors that we see where the attention-seeking, the — you mentioned with reading. And we know that our babies with dyslexia, like that's a real thing that can be a giant struggle. And going back to you know, the idea of acting out, I don't allow the teachers I work with to use that. You know, I always reinforce that it's not acting out. This is communication. So what what is this child trying to communicate to you?
Thinking about the conversation I had earlier with Busola, her experience — it's such a powerful reminder of how race can affect how teachers respond to certain behaviors. I spoke with Busola about the idea of implicit bias. But there's also another term that is incredibly important for Black and brown families to know about. What is "significant disproportionality"?
Jolie: It really just means an overrepresentation of a particular race, of a student in that disabling condition. If you're African American and you're three times more likely to be placed in a behavior or disabilities program, that's a red flag.
Julian: Can you share about how that relates to the other side, suspensions? Is there significant disproportionality in suspensions, and what does that mean?
Jolie: So, yes, data shows that African American students were being disciplined almost five times more frequently than any other student. Data also shows that students with disabilities are typically disciplined three times more often than their non-disabled peers. So now we're talking about we have two groups of students that are already at higher risk for discipline. And so I think that the federal government said now in this significant disproportionality category, we need to start looking closer to see why are students in a certain program or a certain gender or certain race now being suspended?
And suspensions doesn't always mean out-of-school suspensions, in-school suspensions. Basically, any time they're removed from what program their Individual Education Plan or their IEP says that's where they're supposed to be instructed. You want to start to look at why is this happening? And then looking at the patterns of how many days out — are you missing your instruction? And when you look at that, it can be alarming, whether it's a learning disability or a behavioral disability. We need to do a little bit more to instruct this kid.
And so now if we're suspending and we're disciplining, this student's becoming way disconnected. And then you're going to see way other data, that it's going to have a ripple effect. Because now the kid don't want to come to school. "I feel disengaged. I don't want to go to a —" Who wants to go somewhere where they're not liked? No one. Who wants to go somewhere where they don't feel comfortable or valued? No one. So then you'll start to see students being absent, dropout rates increasing, and then the trajectory of that kid's life is altered. It's changed.
Julian: What advice do you have for our parents today? What do you think they should do?
Jolie: I don't think anybody anticipates to go to enroll their kid in a school and think they're going to have a bad relationship with any teacher or any principal, any vice principal, any staff member. But it happens. And it happened to me. And as a parent, everything became reactive. And I was frustrated myself and I wanted my daughter out of this classroom. I can't stand this teacher. I don't even want to talk to her. I don't even want her to call my phone.
If I was proactive, I might have been able to not had to have all of those reactions. I always share with parents, like the first thing to be proactive is: Your kid's going to get a new teacher the next year. Reach out, form a connection with the school. So that's always my first — to try to be part of the school community. And sometimes it's hard. I was a single working mom. I couldn't make it to PTA. I wasn't a PTA mom. I couldn't do that.
And now it's a little bit easier. My kids, when they were in school, there weren't like ClassDojo and these PowerSchool systems and parent portals — that didn't exist. So I would really suggest and recommend to make sure that parents have an open line of communication, you know, with their teachers, with the school. Send a message through an app: "Hey, you know, I'm such-and-such parent. I just want to let you know...." Just having an open line of communication, I think, is the first proactive and pro-social step, so that hopefully when you do that, it builds a little bit of a relationship and so that the interactions aren't always going to be that the teacher or the school is calling you when there's an issue — like a bad issue, like "Your kids doing this today!"
Julian: And so on the flip side, I would highly encourage any parenting adults or any family members that feel like their child is getting targeted or their child is not getting a fair shot, I would put it back on the teacher and ask directly: "Tell me about the conditions that you're creating for children to thrive. And explain to me what your definition of "acting out" is. I'd like to know, because I want to make sure that we're on the same page about behavior." You know, ultimately the teacher and the family at home, we need to be on the same page.
Jolie: And I think that conversation should look at patterns — patterns like do you know that, you know, in the course of October, every English language arts class of, you know, Mr. or Mrs. So-and-so, my kid was sent out. Do you guys see a pattern here? Yes.
My favorite thing to tell parents, and especially in special education, we document everything. Everything is about a pattern. Everything is about data. So, I mean, even every time the school might call you, log those calls: Called on 9/7, second day of school because — I'm just making up a date — because the student's, you know, was out of uniform. Like, these are the silly calls that I think are just ridiculous sometimes. But that's just my personal opinion.
When you start to actually look at those patterns, sometimes, more often than not, you will see — if your child is in middle school or high school and has, let's say, five teachers throughout the course of the day. But it's the same consequence coming from the same period, the same math teacher. What's going on in the math classroom? Let's let's talk about that.
Julian: So, Jolie, last thing, last thing I want to ask you. Especially for our children that fall under the "learning and thinking differences" category. Can you talk about their rights, especially related to discipline and consequences?
Jolie: So this is a — this is heavy, and I'll try to keep it as succinct as possible. Succinct. So any time a student is in the process of a referral to special education, maybe, you know, a parent has has a concern and notices something different and says, "You know, I think my kid needs to be tested." Once that referral is made, all of your parental rights under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act kicks in. It is a federal law. And what happens is your child, if they become disciplined, they — you know, it's not to say that a student that is classified or eligible for special education services, it doesn't mean that they cannot be disciplined. Sometimes this is a myth that people believe.
But what is true is — what is true is that there are certain laws and protections. And the technical term under IDEA is what's called a manifestation determination. Which basically means, you know, maybe I am a student that is classified and let's say I have ADHD, so I'm very impulsive. Right? (This is true, by the way.) When the team meets and says, "OK, before we suspend Jolie, let's think about — the very first question is, 'Was this behavior — is this thing that she just did — is this really a manifestation of her disability?'" So you shouldn't really penalize me for that, because that's how my brain functions. If the characteristic of your behavior is part of your disability, you shouldn't be overdisciplined, because that's not ever going to work. We need to start talking about how can we teach you replacement skills?
So that's one of the things about a manifestation determination. It boils down to two questions. The first question is that and then the second question is a really, really, to me, powerful question, not just as a parent, but as an educator. And that second question is, "Was the behavior caused by the school's failure to implement your child's IEP, Individual Education Plan?" So if the school — if my plan says that I need frequent breaks because I need to chunk my information, take it, and process it, and the teacher doesn't allow me to do that, and so now I'm overwhelmed and I'm frustrated and I act out? You didn't give me what it said I needed. And therefore, why is it my fault? And why should I be suspended or removed from the classroom? You didn't do what my plan says I need. And that's very, very important.
Julian: I wish we could spend another hour together because you have so much knowledge, and we appreciate everything you shared with us today. Anybody listening has gained a lot of information they can use to support the children in their life.
So before we go, I want to leave everyone listening with a few key takeaways.
Number one: Behavior is communication. Behavior is communication. When a child is trying to communicate something, it's not about respecting or not respecting or not falling into line. It's about communication. So as a parenting adult, look for the patterns.
Number two: Be proactive. Parents should reach out before the calls happen. Let the teachers and the school staff know that you are an involved person. And so if that call does happen, there is a relationship that's already been built. Cookies, candy, and other snacks are always appreciated.
Number three: Know your rights. We heard the term "significant disproportionality." We heard the term "manifestation determination." You can use these terms to help advocate for your child.
You've been listening to "The Opportunity Gap" from the Understood Podcast Network. This show is for you. So we want to make sure you're getting what you need. Is there a topic you'd like us to cover? We want to hear from you. Email us at OpportunityGap@Understood.org.
If you want to learn more about the topics we covered today, check out the show notes for this episode. We include more resources as well as links to anything we mentioned in the episode.
Understood.org is a resource dedicated to helping people who learn and think differently discover their potential and thrive. Learn more at Understood.org/mission.
"The Opportunity Gap" is produced by Julie Rawe and edited by Cin Pim. Briana Berry is our production director. Our theme music was written by Justin D. Wright, who also mixes the show. For the Understood Podcast Network, Laura Key is our editorial director, Scott Cocchiere is our creative director, and Seth Melnick is our executive producer. Thanks for listening. See you next time.
is a school administrator who has spent 15 years teaching in urban settings, focusing on social-emotional awareness, cultural and ethnic diversity, and experiential learning.
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