School Punishment, Special Education, and Childhood Behavior Problems

Project: Research project

Project Details


There is growing public and scholarly attention given to changes in school discipline and special education policies in the United States. Some researchers suggest that school discipline policies have become increasingly severe, resulting in a growing number of students receiving school suspensions at all grade levels. At the same time, as schools expand special education plans to provide services for children with medically recognized behavior disorders, a growing number of children are receiving diagnoses and treatment for conditions such as ADHD. School disciplinary and special education practices are intended to allow adults to recognize and respond to perceived child misbehavior. As such, experiences with school punishment, special education, and diagnoses or treatment for behavior disorders should be appropriate and improve future behavior. However, there is growing concern that school discipline and special education practices and interventions intended to improve the learning environment for all youth are instead applied unevenly across children from different racial and ethnic backgrounds. NonHispanic White children are more likely to attend schools with robust special education programs and lower rates of school punishment than racial and ethnic minority children. Consequently, racial and ethnic minority children have higher rates of suspension and are less likely to receive quality special education or medical treatment than White children. As evidence continues to demonstrate the harmful effects of early school punishment on academics and behavior, there is a growing push for schools to adopt approaches to perceived misbehavior that consider underlying behavior problems and disorders. Understanding how school discipline, special education, and diagnoses/treatment for behavior problems affect all children, including marginalized and at-risk youth, will help to craft policies that best serve children with behavior problems in the United States.

There is disagreement regarding whether school discipline and special education improve or disrupt educational progress. Additionally, few studies consider school punishment and special education or therapy/medication as opposing or collaborative approaches to child social control. This project combines data from a sample of at-risk households in large U.S. cities (Fragile Families Child Wellbeing Study) and district- and school-level data on disciplinary and special education practices (e.g. Civil Rights Data Collection). The project uses two broad statistical approaches to answer multiple questions. First, standard linear and non-linear regression models and matching models (e.g. propensity score weighting) will be used to estimate how school discipline and special education policies and practices affect (1) adult perceptions of child behavior; and (2) child experiences of school suspension and/ diagnoses/treatment. This will be achieved by comparing children attending schools with different suspension and special education enrollment rates. Second, mediation and moderation models, including interaction terms, will be used to examine whether caregiver and/or teacher perceptions of child behavior explain the relationships between school discipline and special education practices, childhood social control experiences, and future behavior problems and academic achievement. The project will address issues of selection in mediation and moderation models by using matching techniques, fixed-effects estimation, and placebo regression.

This award reflects NSF's statutory mission and has been deemed worthy of support through evaluation using the Foundation's intellectual merit and broader impacts review criteria.

Effective start/end date8/15/187/31/22


  • National Science Foundation: $257,777.00


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