Teach By Design
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Mar 13, 2023

Disrupt Your Vulnerable Decisions with These Simple Solutions

Once you’ve named a schoolwide vulnerable decision point, then what? You implement solutions, of course. Here are a few to get you started.

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What are you doing to address equity in your school?

On the surface, we all kind of know what it means to pursue equity in education. But, when we dig into it, there is so much to explore. We’ve talked about:

The list goes on. Today, we add to the conversation by talking about the strategies your school can implement to ensure the discipline decisions you make are equitable.

“To improve equity in your referral process, take out the guess work and get everyone on the same page.”

Last month, we talked about vulnerable decision points (VDPs), but it bears repeating here: Naming the moments during the day that contribute to the inequitable outcomes your students experience is an important step to improving equity schoolwide. A VDP isn’t always obvious. In fact, the very nature of a vulnerable decision point is that it’s based on the unconscious ways your responses to behavior don’t align with your personal values. To find a VDP, your data can point you in the right direction. Then, once you know when those moments are likely to happen, you can target them with solutions.

Excellent. We love solutions. Like what?

Of course we have ideas for you here. The truth is, no single strategy will ever be enough to fully address equity in the discipline decisions you make. So, why not implement several! Here are some ideas to get you started.

Practice a Neutralizing Routine

If you’re looking for a strategy specifically targeting the schoolwide VDP you identified, this is the one to try first. A neutralizing routine is essentially a self-management strategy. It’s a way to interrupt the moment and remind you to be sure your decisions and actions are deliberate and thoughtful. To be a neutralizing routine, it must:

  • Be an If-Then statement —a conditional statement saying, "If this happens, then this will happen."
  • Be brief
  • Have clear steps
  • Add space to delay the initial, quick response

There are lots of routines you can implement. Research defines three types:1

  • Delay: Pause your decision until you can think more clearly. For example, you could ask to see a student after class or ask yourself a question in your mind before responding.
  • Reframe: Think about the situation from another perspective. For example, imagine the student is physically injured. In that case, you’d ask them “Are you ok?” or “How can I help?”
  • Self-management: Take care of yourself in the moment before responding. For example, take three deep breaths, or ask the class to join you in the class-wide cool-down strategy you’ve come up with.

An example neutralizing routine might be: If students start to pack up before class has ended, then I will check my tone of voice, remind the class of the expectation (“Team, I need you to listen up for like 2 more minutes, then I promise you can head out), then look for and acknowledge students who are doing that (“Thank you, Diego, for showing me you’re still listening. Thanks, Angela for setting your things down and facing forward.”).

Define Behaviors with Examples

When we talk about behavior, there are several ambiguous terms we use.

  • Respectful and disrespectful
  • Appropriate and inappropriate
  • Problem behavior
  • Defiance

…and more.

If I had to guess, my examples of respectful and disrespectful probably aren’t exactly the same as yours. Because of that, the behaviors we refer for “disrespect” might also look different. To improve equity in your referral process, take out the guesswork and get everyone on the same page.

One way to remove ambiguity is to develop a set of behavioral definitions and a list of examples. We have a list of definitions you can use and edit to fit your context. Ask other teachers what behaviors they’d add to the list and come up with a set you can all agree on. Working from the same definitions means our decisions are more likely to be equitable.

Conduct a Personal Matrix Activity

Your schoolwide expectations help you define the behaviors you hope to see and, in a way, the behaviors you don’t want to see. For example, if one of our schoolwide expectations is “Be Respectful,” maybe the behaviors associated with that are raising your hand to speak and arriving on time to class. That means, the opposite behaviors are probably unwanted —interruptions and arriving late —and they might end in a written referral. All of this is ok, except what if your expected behaviors don’t align with someone else’s cultural norms? How would you know if that mismatch is happening in your school?

Enter the Personal Matrix Activity.

A personal matrix, or behavior dictionary is a tool teachers can use to identify where connections need to be bridged between the schoolwide expectations and the expectations students experience in other places.2 In a recent study, researchers found classrooms that completed the behavior dictionary saw an increase in respectful behavior, a decrease in disruptive behavior, and overall, teachers and students felt like the matrix was a good way to get everyone on the same page.3

To create a personal matrix, you’ll give students a blank table with your schoolwide expectations down the left-hand column with three headers along the top: At school this looks like, At home this looks like, and “In my neighborhood this looks like.” Something like this:

Expectations At SCHOOL it looks like... At HOME it looks like... In my NEIGHBORHOOD it looks like...

Once it’s completed, the personal matrix becomes an outline for figuring out where students could use some extra instruction. It also serves as a brilliant way of finding overlap between these spaces. Check out Appendix G in the Cultural Responsiveness Field Guide: For Trainers and Coaches for how to complete this activity in your classrooms.

Advocate for Formal Policy Language Changes

All of the solutions we’ve discussed so far address the ways implicit bias — the stereotypes unknowingly affecting the decisions we make — creeps into your referral process . We cannot forget to address the ways explicit, intentional bias — traditionally known by names like "racism," "homophobia," "sexism," and more — deliberately creates inequitable outcomes in decision making. Solutions targeting explicit bias are more likely to come from the top down in the form of formal policies and procedures.

  • Make it required for all schools to regularly collect and report discipline data disaggregated by race. Coming from the district-level, this sets the expectation that all schools will commit to monitoring equity in their discipline decisions.
  • Ensure the district’s mission statement includes an explicit commitment to equity. When the district holds itself accountable to this commitment, it serves as a model for how others should conduct themselves as well.
  • All policies include clear, actionable procedures to enhance equity. When you’re hiring someone new, place a preference on those with a commitment to educational equity. Select professional development opportunities that will improve school culture.4

Everyone has a VDP they can name in their day. Once you know yours, it’s up to you to figure out how you’ll make a different choice to disrupt your old patterns. A neutralizing routine is an easy If-then statement you can write down and practice when you’re not in the middle of a VDP. Whether you choose a self-management strategy, a delayed response, a reframe of the situation, a neutralizing routine sets a deliberate response instead of an unconscious one. Defining behaviors you see in your school keeps everyone on the same page as far as what they look like and which ones need an administrator’s support to solve. Getting students, their families, and their communities involved in defining expectations using a personal matrix exposes the mismatches between your schoolwide expectations and the culturally-appropriate behaviors. The solutions don’t stop at the school-level, either. Districts and states can support this work by updating policies to require everyone to center equity in their work.

1. Santiago-Rosario, M. R., & McIntosh, K. (2021). Increasing disciplinary equity by teaching neutralizing routines to teachers and students. In Motivating the SEL field forward through equity (Vol. 21, pp. 127-142). Emerald Publishing Limited.
2. Leverson, M., Smith, K., McIntosh, K., Rose, J., & Pinkelman, S. (March,2021). PBIS Cultural Responsiveness Field Guide: Resources for Trainers and Coaches. Center on PBIS, University of Oregon. www.pbis.org.
3. Muldrew, A., & Miller, F. (2020). Examining the effects of the personal matrix activity with diverse students. Psychology In The Schools, 58(3), 515-533. doi: 10.1002/pits.22461
4. McIntosh, K., Girvan, E. J., Horner, R., & Smolkowski, K. (2014). “Education not incarceration: A conceptual model for reducing racial and ethnic disproportionality in school discipline.” Journal of Applied Research on Children: Informing Policy for Children at Risk: Vol. 5: Iss. 2, Article 4.

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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.