Teach By Design
Data-based decision making
Apr 9, 2024

Anatomy of a Framework Part 8: Discipline Data & Decision Making

Answering just three questions will set you and your team on a data-driven path toward improving equitable outcomes in your schoolwide implementation.

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My family and I spent three days exploring Redwood National Park. I hadn’t been since I was a kid and hiking in that forest as an adult gave me new appreciation for the enormity of these giant trees. We spent the majority of our first day hiking and then the second day we drove to the Trees of Mystery. It’s a tourist attraction to be sure, which made it the kids’ favorite spot of the trip. Among the things you can do is something called the Canopy Trail — a set of eight suspension bridges strung between trees 50-100 feet in the air.

The four of us walked the same path, but our experiences were very different.

  • Our youngest kiddo: fearless and confident
  • Our oldest kiddo: courageous and excited
  • My husband: casual and observant
  • Me: gripping the net as I slowly heel-toed my way across the swaying bridge, focused on breathing and getting to the other side.

Needless to say, the Canopy Trail was not my favorite activity.

At this point, maybe you’re asking yourself: How does this have anything to do with discipline data and decision making? I’m going to get us there...but I apologize in advance.

The schoolwide systems, practices, and data you implement as part of your PBIS framework have to work for everyone. All students have access to feedback and acknowledgements. All families have an opportunity to share their perspectives. All staff have access to high quality professional development. It’s important to regularly ask whether you’re doing all 15 essential features which form the PBIS framework AND it’s important to understand how those features affect your schoolwide community. As we look to understand our implementation’s impact, one of the six data-level features to examine is discipline data — your referral data documenting consequences to behavior.

I promise you I’m coming back to the Trees of Terror…I mean, Mystery.

Research tells us schoolwide discipline practices impact specific student groups differently. “Students of color are at greater risk to receive exclusionary discipline compared to white students, with Black students being most at risk. Even when controlling for factors other than race (e.g., behaviors, poverty), Black students still experience disproportionally high rates of exclusionary discipline compared to other racial groups.”1 While implementing PBIS seems to improve these rates, it doesn’t eliminate discipline inequities entirely.2,3,4 If that’s the case, we should assume that even though we’re all walking along the same implementation bridges, some of our students experience the sway differently than others.

I know. I grimaced after I wrote the sentence. I’m sorry.

So, what if schools deliberately and intentionally focused on equity in their implementation? Would that make a difference in outcomes?

The Center on PBIS defines a 5-point approach to addressing equity in your school.

  1. Collect, use, and report disaggregated data.
  2. Implement a behavior framework that is preventive, multi-tiered, and culturally-responsive.
  3. Use engaging instruction to reduce the opportunity (achievement) gap.
  4. Develop policies with accountability for disciplinary equity.
  5. Teach strategies for neutralizing implicit bias in discipline decisions.

Several studies explored how this 5-point approach impacted equity outcomes. In one study, schools implementing this approach improved outcomes related to school climate, discipline, and effectiveness more than schools that weren’t implementing it.5 In another study, schools implementing three out of the five points (points 1, 2, and 5) were able to close the gap in referral rates between Black students and white students from 3.62 referrals per month at the beginning of the year to .57 referrals per month by the end of the year.6

An intentional focus on equity in your implementation does make a difference!

When we look at the 5-point approach, the first step is to collect, use, and report disaggregated data. In this context, we mean you need a way to collect, use, and report referral data broken out across demographic groups like race/ethnicity, individualized education plan (IEP) status, English learner status, and gender. Collecting these data seems clear enough — your data system either gives you a place to enter them or it doesn’t. (PS: SWIS does).

What about the reporting and using part? For me, this is where things often feel trickier.

Reports related to equity often involve some math and each one gives us a slice of information about the larger discipline patterns happening in our school. Lucky for us, The Center on PBIS has another resource for this work. It’s a practice guide called “Discipline Disproportionality Problem Solving: A Data Guide for School Teams” and it takes you through the process one step at a time. Pro Tip: If you’re a team about to dive into your equity data, download this guide.

The practice guide tells us we need to ask ourselves: Do we have an inequity problem? The answer to that question requires asking at least three additional questions, found in the SWIS Equity Report.

I know. Answering one question by asking three more? It feels like a trick. It’s not.

These three questions guide you through a process to know whether you have a problem or not. By the end, they set you on a data-driven path to pursue solutions as a team. There are three calculations you’ll need to answer those questions and the good news is: The SWIS Equity report has you covered. The following are the three questions addressing risk, within the equity report.

The Risk Index

Question: What is the likelihood students have been or will be referred in each group?

The risk index calculates the proportion of a group that’s been referred or is likely to be referred. At the beginning of the year, the proportion will always be relatively low because only a few students have been referred. As the year progresses, the calculation has nowhere to go but up as more students receive referrals. For that reason, the risk index is less useful for progress monitoring and more useful for comparing groups to each other.

In this example, 66% of Black students are at risk to receive or have already received at least one referral.

The Risk Ratio

Question: How much more (or less) likely is it for one student group to be referred than another?

If you take the risk index for one group and divide it by the risk index of another group, you’ve got yourself a risk ratio — the likelihood for one group to be referred compared to another. A risk ratio of:

  • 1.0 means both groups are just as likely to be referred
  • Greater than 1.0 means the group is more likely to be referred than the comparison group.
  • Less than 1.0 means the group is less likely to be referred than the comparison group.

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission indicates a goal risk ratio of below 1.25 or something they call the 4/5ths Rule.7 In this example, Black students are about 2.2 times more likely to receive a referral than all other students.

Rates by Group

Question: How often do we refer students in each group?

The rate per group is simply how often you refer each student within a given group. This calculation isn’t a comparison. It’s a number specific to the group you’re looking at and it’s one you should monitor throughout the year.

Another way to take advantage of the rate is to calculate the rate difference between groups. Take the rate from one group and subtract the rate from another group to see whether one group is referred at a higher or lower rate than another.

In this example, Black students receive about two referrals per student. Black students are also referred at a higher rate than all other students in our school.

Looking at all three graphs in this example as a collective, we know Black students:

  • Are referred at a higher rate than all other students in the school (an average of almost two referrals per student).
  • Have a 66% likelihood to receive at least one referral.
  • Are more than twice as likely to receive a referral than all other students in the school.

If I was a team member at this school looking to answer the question, “Do we have an inequity problem in our discipline data,” my answer would be yes.

The Tiered Fidelity Inventory (TFI) tells us the discipline data you collect needs to include information about the behavior, the location, the time of day, and the individual student. To truly center equity, you also need to look at these data disaggregated by student demographic information like race/ethnicity, gender, IEP status, and English learner status. There isn’t one report that will tell you whether there are inequities in the way you refer students in your school…but there are three calculations to help kickstart those conversations. Check out the SWIS Equity Report and ask yourself these questions:

  • Risk Index: How likely are our students to be referred?
  • Risk Ratio: How much more (or less) likely are some students to be referred than others?
  • Rate by Group: How often do we refer students in each group?

Start by answering these questions and your team will be well on its way to understanding whether some students experience consequences differently than others in your school.

1. McIntosh, K., Girvan, E. J., McDaniel, S. C., Santiago-Rosario, M. R., St. Joseph, S., Fairbanks Falcon, S., ... & Bastable, E. (2021). Effects of an equity-focused PBIS approach to school improvement on exclusionary discipline and school climate. Preventing School Failure: Alternative Education for Children and Youth65(4), 354-361.
2. McIntosh, K., Goin, C., & Bastable, E. (2018). Do schools implementing SWPBIS have decreased racial disproportionality in school discipline? OSEP TA Center on Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports.
3. Swain-Bradway, J., Gulbrandson, K., Galston, A., McIntosh, K. (2019) Do Wisconsin schools implementing an integrated academic and behavior support framework improve equity in academic and school discipline outcomes? Center on Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports. www.pbis.org.
4. Vincent, C. G., & Tobin, T. J. (2011). The relationship between implementation of school-wide positive behavior support (SWPBS) and disciplinary exclusion of students from various ethnic backgrounds with and without disabilities. Journal of Emotional and Behavioral Disorders19(4), 217-232. https://doi.org/10.1177/1063426610377329
5. McIntosh, K., Girvan, E. J., McDaniel, S. C., Santiago-Rosario, M. R., St. Joseph, S., Fairbanks Falcon, S., ... & Bastable, E. (2021). Effects of an equity-focused PBIS approach to school improvement on exclusionary discipline and school climate. Preventing School Failure: Alternative Education for Children and Youth65(4), 354-361.
6. Payno-Simmons, R. L. (2021). Centering equity in school discipline: The Michigan PBIS equity pilot. Preventing School Failure: Alternative Education for Children and Youth65(4), 343-353.
7. US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. (1979). Questions and answers to clarify and provide a common interpretation of the uniform guidelines on employee selection procedures. Federal Register40(43).

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Megan Cave


Megan Cave

Megan Cave is a member of the PBISApps Marketing and Communication team. She is the writer behind the user manuals, scripted video tutorials, and news articles for PBISApps. She also writes a monthly article for Teach by Design and contributes to its accompanying Expert Instruction podcast episode. Megan has completed four half marathons – three of which happened unintentionally – and in all likelihood, will run another in the future.

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