Mindfulness Helps Reduce Unequal Discipline

Mindfulness a not only a great tool to help students focus, but it also helps educators to be more culturally responsive.   

Editor’s Note: This blog was first published at on March 3, 2013 and posted here with permission.

Last week I joined a group of educators interested in mindfulness as a tool in the classroom. Our group leader, Kate Janke of the Heart-Mind Education Project, has worked for years to bring mindfulness to schools.

Makes sense. We ask our students all the time to pay attention, but we don’t give them the tools they need to focus and concentrate.

But mindfulness isn’t just for students. One of my favorite articles is “Mindful Reflection as a Process for Developing Culturally Responsive Practices” by Barbara J. Dray and Debora Basler Wisneski. The authors make a connection to teachers’ need for mindfulness.

As busy teachers, we are not always fully present in the moment. Instead, we rely on habits and routines to move us through the class period, especially with classroom management. Too often this leads to unequal discipline. The data highlight that reality:

  • African-American students are nearly three times as likely to be suspended and 3.5 times as likely to be expelled as white peers.
  • Latino students are 1.5 times as likely to be suspended and twice as likely to be expelled as white peers.
  • White students are usually disciplined for “objective” offenses: smoking, cutting class, using obscene language, vandalism.
  • African-American and Latino students are disciplined for “subjective” offenses: being too loud, being disrespectful, loitering.

To shift these patterns, the authors suggest we start with our own mindfulness. They define it as a particular quality of attention in which one is present to the experience of the moment. In this space, there’s no autopilot, no becoming reactive, no premature interpretation and evaluation of what’s going on.

Dray and Wisneski point out that mindfulness makes space for alternative interpretations of student behavior and gives teachers the opportunity to respond differently. What makes this article powerful is the process they offer to help us do this.

They frame their protocol around the three cognitive processes involved in how we make sense of what’s going on around us: description, interpretation and evaluation. As an example, they offer the behavior of an imaginary student, Enrique, during a reading activity.

“Enrique raised his hand 10 times during the story read-aloud” is a description of what occurred in the classroom. A description is an account of what a person observed, heard or experienced. A description does not attribute social significance to the behavior.

Interpretation, in contrast, is the process of inferring what the behavior meant by attributing social significance to it. There are three interpretations of Enrique’s behavior: (1) Enrique was disruptive during story read-aloud, (2) Enrique enjoyed the story or (3) Enrique wanted attention.

Evaluation is the process of attributing positive or negative social significance to a behavior. “Enrique wanted attention” can be evaluated in various ways, from “I don’t like that; Enrique needs to learn better turn-taking skills” to “I like that Enrique takes initiative during read-alouds.”

Interpretation and evaluation are strongly influenced by our cultural lenses and experiences. It is the place where shifts must happen.

Dray and Wisneski skillfully lay out steps for cultivating what they call “mindful reflection” to help teachers check their assumptions about what a student’s behavior might mean. “Mindful Reflection as a Process for Developing Culturally Responsive Practices” is one of my go-to articles when supporting teachers who are working on their cultural responsiveness.

Read it and tell me what you think. Be sure to pass it on.

Hammond, who lives in the San Francisco Bay area, is an educator and writer who is passionate about teaching and learning. She’s worked as a research analyst, a high school and college writing instructor, a literacy consultant and, for the past 13 years, a professional developer.