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Study Furthers Understanding of Disparities in School Discipline

Research Highlight

A growing body of research has shown that Black, Hispanic, and students whose parent’s incomes are below the federal poverty threshold are disciplined more often and severely than their white peers or those with higher socioeconomic status. However, much of that research has been limited to K–12 settings or relied on potentially biased parent or childcare provider reports of disruptive behavior.

A new NIMH-supported analysis  designed to overcome these limitations has further advanced our understanding of racial and socioeconomic bias in the classroom. The analysis shows that disciplinary disparities occur as early as preschool and that their effects can negatively influence how well students do in later years.

In this new analysis, developmental psychologist Terri J. Sabol, Ph.D. , of Northwestern University, examined data from 430 children who were part of a prior NIMH-funded study focused on preschoolers , led by Laurie Wakschlag, Ph.D. , also of Northwestern University. Sabol drew on the data to examine if disciplinary differences could occur as early as preschool.

While many studies on racial biases in disciplinary practices have only examined race or socioeconomic factors individually, the new analysis looked at how these two factors intersect by grouping the preschool children into three categories: Black nonpoor, Black/Hispanic poor, and White/Hispanic nonpoor. 

Researchers employed the Disruptive Behavior Diagnostic Observation Schedule to identify problematic behavioral patterns. The schedule is a NIMH-funded laboratory-based standardized observation tool specifically designed to differentiate between misbehavior typically seen in early childhood and behavior that indicates more serious clinical concerns. Using the observation tool, researchers then examined the relationship between parental reports of childcare provider complaints and children’s objectively observed disruptive behavior.

They found that children in the Black/Hispanic poor and the Black nonpoor groups had significantly more teacher-identified behavioral problems than children in the White/Hispanic nonpoor group, even though the observation tool showed no differences in children’s objective disruptive behavior. The findings suggest that racial bias in the interpretation and reporting of child behavior by childcare providers may occur as early as preschool. In addition, regardless of race, children in the lower socioeconomic status group received more childcare provider behavioral complaints than children in the Black nonpoor and the White/Hispanic nonpoor groups, even though researchers saw no objective differences in behavior between the groups.

The researchers then looked at a subgroup of 230 children who had been followed until elementary school. They found that children who received more childcare provider complaints in preschool tended to have lower test scores and poorer cognitive performance in elementary school. Children who received more provider complaints in preschool also had more problems in elementary school, were less engaged in and more likely to miss school, and had declining grades, according to parent reports. Teachers’ negative characterization of minority children or children with a low socioeconomic status in preschool may have created a feedback loop, leading to ongoing discipline and negative experiences over the years, researchers said.

The analysis was limited in that childcare provider complaints in preschool were based on parental reports rather than childcare providers’ direct reports. In future studies, researchers might consider incorporating teacher reports of children’s behaviors and direct classroom observations. Also, a larger sample size and a deeper understanding of providers’ backgrounds and school characteristics might help researchers better understand the dynamics of biased reporting and its effects into elementary school.

Despite the limitation of the analysis, its findings suggest minority children or children with a low socioeconomic status experience disciplinary bias in the classroom and that the effects of these biases may be long-lasting, impacting performance in elementary school.


Sabol, T. J., Kessler, C. L., Rogers, L. O., Petitclerc, A., Silver, J., Briggs‐Gowan, M., & Wakschlag, L. S. (2021). A window into racial and socioeconomic status disparities in preschool disciplinary action using developmental methodology. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences1508(1), 123-136. 


R01MH082830 , 2U01MH082830 , 3U01MH082830-06S1 , UO1MH090301