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Addressing the Negative Impact of Vague Disciplinary Language

Being able to say 'no' and 'uh-oh' immediately puts you in the world of the counterfactual and the possible—the road not taken, the possibility that isn’t real.
Alison Gopnik, The Philosophical Baby

A 2021 Child Trends report “identified 156 policies across 48 states and the District of Columbia (DC) that rely on vague language to enforce disciplinary consequences... The most frequently used terms were ‘disrupt/disruption/disruptive’ (43 states), ‘willful/willfully’ (21 states), and ‘disobey/disobedience/disobedient’ (20 states).” The “widespread and varied use of vague language in these laws, which often fail to define the prohibited conduct and allow a significant degree of arbitrary interpretation. This uncertainty puts youth at risk of disparate discipline enforcement that has been shown to negatively impact youth of color.”

The report concludes “states can take the following steps, beyond simply replacing and defining vague terminology, to improve state school discipline statutes:

1. Enumerate specific prohibited behaviors for students.

2. Ensure that specific prohibited behaviors are distinguishable from developmentally appropriate child and adolescent behavior.

3. Establish where and when the policy applies (e.g., during school hours, during school activities, etc.).

4. Account for students’ knowledge or intent of wrongdoing.

5. Account for the outcome of students’ behavior."

In one of the articles in the Exchange Essentials “Children with Challenging Behavior Part 3,” Sarah Garrity and Sascha Longstreth note, “Because implicit bias often affects the decisions we make, especially when we are faced with the stress and emotion that often accompany children’s challenging behaviors, it is essential that early childhood educators intentionally and systematically work to identify and address implicit bias.” They continue, “High-quality, evidence-based behavior guidance policies can help early childhood programs by providing an infrastructure that supports the social, emotional and academic success of all children. Importantly, behavior guidance policies can also be used to address disproportionate rates of suspension and expulsion based on race.”

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