Expanding Our Views on Behavior and Black Students: a Call to Action

The Black Lives Matter movement’s re-emergence opened the door for a serious, prolonged discussion about the long-standing systemic practices negatively affecting Black people in the United States. In this first installment of a two-part series (read part two: “Shifting the Paradigm from Disciplining Black Students to Cultural Responsiveness”), we discuss how one of the most challenging places for Black children to thrive is in the educational system.


A quick search through ASHA’s resources and programs demonstrates significant efforts toward increased understanding of diversity. So while we recognize our discipline’s progress, we hope this first piece in a two-part series will empower school-based educational audiologists, speech-language pathologists, researchers, and assistants to:


  1. Challenge our way of thinking to consider paradigms outside of our own cultural perspectives.
  2. Provide culturally competent services by recognizing the culturally-linguistically different behaviors African American children might display.
  3. Avoid assigning bias against students of color through mainstream perspectives on behavior and communication.
  4. Advocate on behalf of students of color and prevent unnecessary, detrimental disciplinary outcomes often seen in the educational setting that perpetuate the school-to-prison pipeline.


School disciplinary practices against Black students


Black students—especially those with disabilities—are much more likely to experience the harshest forms of discipline, even when such consequences wouldn’t be equally administered to their White counterparts (See Maryland Equity Projectchildtrends.org).


For example, researchers found that White students were more likely to be disciplined for provable, documentable offenses, such as smoking, vandalism, and obscene language while Black students were more likely to be disciplined for more subjective reasons, such as disrespect. The degree of the perceived disrespect may not necessarily warrant the types of punishment Black students receive. Consequently, it seems Black students are being subjected to harsher punishments and, ultimately, institutionalization.


Behavior from a communication perspective


As communication experts, SLPs can serve as critical advocates when children experience disciplinary problems. Black students’ behavior might be interpreted more harshly because of cultural mismatches in communication. A growing body of research demonstrates the linguistic differences between students who speak African American English and the expectations outlined in the mainstream American English-dominant classroom. Communication professionals need to be aware that behavior can be a form of communication.


Behavioral expectations vary across cultures. For example, African American culture emphasizes non-verbal and paralinguistic communication. Therefore, it is essential to consider the cultural implications behind the behaviors of Black students. For instance, a behavior commonly expressed in the Black community is “loud-talking,” the act of delivering a line—intended for a select listener(s)—loud enough for an outsider to hear. Loud-talking might become detrimental for children in schools because it’s seen as violating discretion norms.


These behaviors might seem disrespectful, but the degree of perceived disrespect rarely warrants the types of punishment Black students receive.


Where SLPs fit in


School-based SLPs can serve as critical advocates for students experiencing disciplinary problems related to behavioral communication issues. SLPs can share with other educators the importance of avoiding biased interpretations of behavior. We can also advocate for improved school policies on behavioral expectations of students and approaches to discipline for students of color, especially when they present with disabilities.


SLPs can also share with other educators the importance of not assuming certain cultural behaviors result from defiance, lack of interest, and disrespect. Exploring potential cultural sources of behaviors can help educators avoid implicit bias against certain groups.


This type of behavioral exploration of can also help avoid unnecessary punishments that push the student further along the school-to-prison pipeline.


Raising awareness about accountability systems that encourage fair, consistent, and clearly communicated responses to behavior can help alleviate some subjectivity of school disciplinary practices that often lead to harsher consequences for students of color. In part two of this series, we share three approaches school-based SLPs can use to counter these disproportionate punishments.


Valencia Perry, PhD, CCC-SLP, is an assistant professor at Howard University in communication sciences and disorders. She supervised Evans during her clinical placements and is also a bilingual SLP serving private clients. vcperry@Howard.edu


Melanie Y. Evans, MS, CF-SLP, is a clinical fellow in the Houston Independent School District in Houston, Texas. She formally served as a graduate clinician—supervised by Perry—for a charter school in Southeast D.C. and Montgomery County Public Schools. melanie.evans513@gmail.com