Establishing behavioral expectations is part of the fabric of classrooms. Teachers begin each year creating shared values and classroom rules with each new group of students. Feedback occurs frequently for both positive (“Nice work figuring out that difficult question!”) and negative (“Students, return to your desks and line up again using your walking feet this time”) behaviors. Educators spend a lot of time attempting to establish the expectations that promote positive behavior.
As most educators know intuitively if not explicitly, there are two approaches to ensure students develop social, emotional, and behavioral skills that foster academic and personal growth.
The first approach is called antecedent control – these are the structural, preventative, and actively engaging approaches that promote positive behaviors in schools. The second approach is called consequent control – how an educator reacts to behaviors, positive and negative, within the school setting.
Both approaches can promote equity within school settings when they are used intentionally and consistently. However, far too often, educators unintentionally create or exasperate disparities present within their schools when they rely primarily on consequent control.
In this article, we will discuss:
- The potential for disproportionate outcomes when relying solely on consequent controls
- What antecedents are and how to use them; and
Specific antecedents that can be used to support equitable practices within schools
The Problem with Consequent Controls
There is clear and sustain ed evidence that consequence-focused strategies within schools promote inequities. Studies, like the ones listed at the end of this article, show that when educators have to respond and react to misbehavior and enforce consequences (e.g., punishments, suspensions), minoritized students disproportionately experience the most frequent and intense consequences. Indeed, there is a real risk of inequity within the application of punitive discipline practices , such as suspension or expulsion because adults are reacting to challenging behavior that has already happened, rather than preventing it from occurring in the first place. Such situations increase the chance that subjectivity and implicit bias can affect decision-making about consequences. Students from minoritized racial groups and students with disabilities are more likely to be subjected to the most coercive and intensive consequence strategies. This is a long-standing problem within schools that we need to continue shining a spotlight on.
Due to these concerns, educators who focus on antecedent control gain a number of advantages. First, antecedents promote appropriate behavior – if a student is aware of clearly described behavioral expectations, they are most often meet them. Second, a focus on antecedents typically generates greater rates of prosocial behavior, a much preferable situation that is not as liable to the inequities observed within punitive consequence strategies. Finally, a focus on antecedents promotes student choice – the student is able to make an informed decision about their behavioral choices, using their own agency, rather than relying on a subjectively enacted consequence doled out by an adult within a student-educator relationship that has a clearly embedded power differential.
Due to these potential advantages, educators should focus on antecedent strategies instead. Doing so has a number of advantages. For example, antecedents provide:
- Structure and predictability t o all students within the school and classroom;
- A framework for promoting positive social and emotional behaviors (e.g., “In the hallway on our next transition we will all use our walking feet and keep our voices at level zero.”).
- An equitable way of managing consequences in school settings. If rules, expectations, and consequences are clearly defined in advance, then it is straightforward for the educators and administrators to manage situations where the rules or expectations were not met rather than relying on the judgment calls of individuals.
A way to prevent challenging behaviors – many people who see a speed limit sign posted for 55 miles per hour will stay within that general range, preventing drivers from going too slow or too fast for the roadway and ensuring safe ranges of speed for the majority of drivers.
Examples of Antecedents that Promote Equity
So what are the antecedents that might be useful in school settings to promote equity?
Classroom rules should be clearly specified and universally applied. These rules provide everyone with a clear understanding of the expectations for behavior. They work in the same way as antecedents all around us – speed limit signs, posted rules at public pools, and signs at the doorway of a store that outline information everyone should know (e.g., cash only, No shirt, no shoes, no service).
- Rules are easy to understand, universal, and apply to everyone in the setting.
- Schools can have these rules across all settings, or rules may be tailored for particular settings (e.g., hallway, classroom, cafeteria).
Reviewing rules with all students prior to each activity and frequently throughout the day ensures everyone in the setting understands the expectations and how to meet them.
This approach promotes equity because the situation has clearly defined and preordained procedures. Inequity is most likely to creep into situations where judgment calls are made, which is liable to be influenced by implicit biases .
Provide positive attention liberally
So often teachers’ attention and feedback are directed toward students who break a class rule or interrupt the activity. This is consequence control—a consequence of disruptive behavior is teacher attention, albeit negative.
To flip this dynamic around, the teacher could instead enact antecedent control by choosing to direct attention to all the good things happening in the classroom:
- “I like to see all these pencils moving busily on this assignment!”
- “Some of the contributions to our discussion today have been right on target.”
- “I like the way Darrius waited patiently for his turn.”
By providing positive attention liberally and tailored to the specific social/emotional behaviors that should be promoted, there is less need for students to attempt to gain adult attention as a consequence of misbehavior.
This approach promotes equity as all students have access to positive and rewarding comments from the educator. By illustrating to students what to do (antecedent) rather than what not to do (consequence) educators set their students up for success.
Spell out consequences ahead of time
The time to discuss consequences for behavior is prior to the expected behavior, not following it. After all, many students might say to themselves that they would have chosen a different approach, had they known what the consequences would be.
Importantly, educators should explain the consequences for both positive and negative behaviors so students know what they are working toward, as well as what will happen should they fall short.
This approach promotes equity because it is fair and it affords the students complete knowledge to inform the choices that they may subsequently make.
Plan to monitor progress and assess fidelity of implementation
One of the best ways to ensure equity in the promotion of positive social and emotional behavior in schools is for school leaders to establish a clear, school-wide plan and then train and support the individuals charged with implementing the plan. Once the plan is implemented, progress towards the goal (e.g., reduced inequity in discipline practices, such as referrals to the office for discipline), monitor progress, and assess fidelity of implementation.
This approach promotes equity by placing it at the center of the evaluation of progress and outcomes . This can include ensuring there is not disproportionate consequence control at particular grade levels, from particular educators/administrators, and that course corrections can be made on an ongoing basis.
Solicit feedback from all stakeholders
This can be done through frequent community engagements, discussions with student leaders, and shared decision-making among the community of educators, learners, and families in the school community.
This approach promotes equity by ensuring all voices are heard.
Antecedent strategies to promote equity should push school-based interactions toward increased positive and rewarding experiences for students and teachers. In parallel, the need for enacting consequences for school challenges should decrease, and as noted these are the school situations most likely to result in inequity.
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Further Reading Recommendations
As mentioned earlier, many studies have been done to show how consequence-focused strategies within schools promote inequities; here are a few we recommend reading.
Anfinson, A., Autumn, S., Lehr, C., Riestenberg, N., & Scullin, S. (2010). Disproportionate minority representation in suspension and expulsion in Minnesota public schools: A report from the Minnesota Department of Education. The International Journal of School Disaffection, 1-20.
Bell, C. (2020). “Maybe if they let us tell the story I wouldn’t have gotten suspended”: Understanding Black students’ and parents’ perceptions of school discipline. Children and Youth Services Review, 110, 104757.
Krezmien, M.P., Leone, P.E., & Achilles, G.M. (2006). Suspension, race, and disability: Analysis of statewide practices and reporting. Journal of Emotional and Behavioral Disorders, 14, 217-226.
Losen, D. J., & Martinez, P. (2020). Lost opportunities: How disparate school discipline continues to drive differences in the opportunity to learn. Palo Alto, CA/Los Angeles, CA: Learning Policy Institute; Center for Civil Rights Remedies at the Civil Rights Project, UCLA.
Riddle, T., & Sinclair, S. (2019). Racial disparities in school-based disciplinary actions are associated with county-level rates of racial bias. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 116(17), 8255-8260.
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