This article is part of an ongoing series featuring conversations with experts and researchers in SEL, behavior support, and learning technology led by Classcraft CEO and Co-founder Shawn Young.
On April 5, we were lucky enough to be joined by Dr. Nikole Hollins-Sims, an award-winning education expert with a broad set of experience in behavior support, equity, student mental health, and education consulting.
Dr. Hollins-Sims is currently a technical assistance coordinator for the Midwest PBIS Network, having previously served as Special Assistant to the Secretary of Education at the Pennsylvania Department of Education. During the webinar, she went into detail about important data practices, the nature of bias in school discipline, common mistakes in schoolwide behavior support, and more. Let’s explore three key takeaways from the conversation.
Training on equity and bias should be done with intentionality
Much of Dr. Hollins-Sims’ work has been centered around developing the most effective approaches for truly equitable schoolwide PBIS. A major part of this is, of course, understanding the nature of bias in school discipline and how to correct it for better outcomes.
One of the most important phases in this process is the training and orientation of teachers and staff about what bias is and how to address it. Dr. Hollins-Sims pointed out that all educators and education professionals have biases, and that it’s important to approach equity training with intentionality to help it go as smoothly as possible.
“When you bring the whole staff together and someone like me comes and says, ‘bias is this,’ and ‘you shouldn’t do that,’ everyone walks away deflated. They don’t buy into it. I wanted intentionality behind what we do. Start with the core team and train them on how to address disproportionate data, then train the grade-level teams, and build a cascade of training with actual coaching, instead of a one-shot deal.”
Because acknowledging bias can be a heavy process for anyone, it will only become a more difficult project when educators feel that they’re being targeted and overwhelmed. Dr. Hollins-Sims’ recommendation is all about treating equity-driven training as a process of mentorship, one that’s carried out with skill and care.
Radical inclusion is essential to equitable PBIS
When talking about general pitfalls that schools can often fall into when implementing PBIS, Dr. Hollins-Sims emphasized the significance of the “voices” that drive behavior support. She explained that it’s common for educators to center their own voices and perspectives without realizing it. This ultimately leads to PBIS that isn’t sufficiently informed by what’s meaningful to the people receiving the support.
“Where we miss the mark sometimes is when we think we know what’s best and we haven’t listened to people, like our students, families, and communities. Then we wonder why there’s no buy-in. It’s because we haven’t done radical inclusion, which is the ability to listen without having a response prepared. It’s the ability to take it all in, apply what we’ve learned from that listening, and be responsive to it.”
Dr. Hollins-Sims continued by pointing out that this can make the biggest difference between status-quo PBIS and equitable PBIS.
“Because now I’m meeting the definition of equity. One of the components is co-construction, which comes from the voices that have traditionally not been included in that decision-making.”
Subjectivity plays a major role in discipline and implicit bias
When discussing the many factors that can contribute to bias, Dr. Hollins-Sims turned her focus toward the subjective nature of teaching and discipline. Because different teachers will have different perceptions of what behavior is and isn’t problematic, disproportionalities can arise from simple nuances in the interpretation of student behavior.
“Let’s say in your classroom disrespect looks one way, and in my classroom, it looks totally different. From class to class, the student doesn’t have consistency, and I might write them up for something you wouldn’t write them up for. Subjectivity is so much at play, and that’s where implicit bias is also at play.”
Without consistent schoolwide behavior expectations, and without a schoolwide focus on being aware of and addressing bias, it becomes much more difficult to carry out behavior support in an equitable way. In talking about this, Dr. Hollins-Sims gave a shoutout to Dr. Kent McIntosh, who we also held a webinar discussion with last year.
“Dr. McIntosh talks about the three D’s — defiance, disrespect, and disruption — being highly subjective. They’re also typically the behaviors you see with the most disproportionate outcomes.”
With these insights, Dr. Hollins-Sims makes it clear that equitable PBIS isn’t just about acknowledging and addressing bias, it’s about putting yourself in the students’ shoes. This ties back to the larger, crucial goal of making student voices and student agency an integral part of any approach to behavior support.
We’d like to thank Dr. Hollins-Sims for sharing her time and expertise with us. These takeaways were only a small part of a deep and wide-ranging discussion, so be sure to watch the full webinar below for more!