By: Edward Fergus
There are inherent challenges in creating a universal message of equity, particularly in an academic environment. Doing so requires leaders who are comfortable listening to others’ perspectives, considering those perspectives, and then making an equitable decision. Developing a universal message of equity is important – but it’s seldom that simple. In this article, we’ll look at some bias-based beliefs that are hurdles in the pursuit of equity as well as ways to interrupt those beliefs using a positive behavior interventions and supports (PBIS) framework that can help clear the way toward equity.

How Bias-Based Beliefs Impact Equity

In my book, Solving Disproportionality and Achieving Equity, I use a 2015 quote from a high school principal to illustrate how bias-based beliefs can result in disproportionality:

“We went through poverty training about 10 to 12 years ago, and one of the things that I remember from reading some of the books on poverty and the trainings is the need for us to understand that in Black culture, they are loud, in Hispanic culture kids are not supposed to look at adults in the eye, and poor people have difficulty with time and use lots of humor to explain things.”

To this principal:

  • Black culture is “loud”, which explains the school’s patterns of disproportionate suspensions
  • Hispanic students are quiet, which demonstrates their lack of engagement in class
  • Low-income students have issues with time, which explains their tardiness

These types of bias-based beliefs can directly result in these populations a) not attaining proficiency in class, b) consistently receiving behavior referrals, and c) not being placed in gifted/AP/honors programs.

There are several categories of bias-based beliefs I have noted below that can lead to significant disproportionality in schools and districts.

  • Colorblindness Belief
    Have you ever mentioned to a friend or colleague of color that you don’t see them as Black or Latino or Native because, to you, they’re simply a fellow human being, regardless of the color of their skin? If so, you’re far from alone. And while the principle and intention behind a statement like this is noble and commendable, it could also be a sign of colorblindness belief if it involves a refusal to acknowledge someone’s color or heritage, with the possibility of a good intention erasing an opportunity to build a cross-cultural perspective that includes different experiences based on identities.
  • Deficit-Thinking Belief
    I covered this in depth in a previous blog post. Low-income and racial/ethnic minority students are generally the subject of potentially devastating deficit-thinking beliefs, such as:

    • Disadvantaged students don’t have the ability to succeed in school.
    • Students of color from disadvantaged homes lack initiative.
    • Students of color should assimilate to succeed in mainstream American culture.
    • The values and beliefs shared by those in disadvantaged neighborhoods tend to go against school values and beliefs about what makes up a good education.

To a deficit-thinking educator, these statements serve as “reasons” for a school to give up on certain students, or to categorize them as “problems” and refer them to special education without pausing to ask further questions.

  • Poverty-Disciplining Belief
    Placing blame on low-income people for their difficult situations; poverty-disciplining belief also focuses on changing the behavior in order to mitigate the presumed behavioral effect of low-income conditions. In other words, those practicing this bias belief are convinced that a punishment orientation of discipline is the solution to correcting certain behaviors.

How to Successfully Interrupt Bias-Based Beliefs

Now that we’ve looked at some common bias-based beliefs, let’s look at how to address them using solutions that incorporate positive behavior interventions and supports (PBIS).

1) Improved Decision-Making. When individuals are engaged in continuous activities that may involve “low effort” processing, they are more likely to rely on stereotypes to assist the processing (Bodenhausen, 1990). This use of stereotypes to make decisions is also common for those in positions of stress, quick-turnaround decisions, and pressure situations. Decision-makers need to minimize the impact of stereotypes through creating individuating experiences, inserting new mental strategies for routine tasks that impact others, and expanding affinity groups through intergroup contact.

2) Counter-Stereotypic Imaging. Counter-stereotype imaging involves over-saturating the environment with counter-stereotypes to reduce the relevance of common stereotypes. This can be achieved through books used in classrooms, images portrayed in the classroom and hallways, the students chosen for leadership roles, and the participation of students in advanced courses.

3) Individuating. Stereotypes are at times derived from imagery of out-group members and used to maintain in-group status as well. To counteract these stereotypes, individuating is a strategy used for creating information specific to individuals that allow for less reliance on a stereotype (Fiske, 1998). Individuating involves ongoing, positive, equal sharing of information, and sustained interaction.

4) Perspective-Taking. This strategy focuses on creating opportunities for an individual to develop a closeness with a stigmatized group and reduce the habit of using stereotypes (Galinsky & Moskowitz, 2000). Perspective-taking involves the development of cultural learning blueprints through sustained individuating interactions or other means of experiences. This process allows an individual to experience a condition different than their own in which they have an opportunity to develop an understanding of the cultural models that emerge because of that specific condition.

5) Intergroup Contact. This is a strategy for reducing or interrupting the reliance on implicit biases and bias-based beliefs. The focus of the interaction is to share cultural artifacts within a context of parity and equal standing (Pettigrew, 1998; Pettigrew & Tropp, 2006).

Exploring beliefs as representations of school climate allows for the potential of considering systemic remedies as supporting or reducing biased beliefs. Emerging research on systemic remedies such as social-emotional Learning (SEL) competencies, PBIS, and Response to Intervention (RTI) highlight the need for infusing culturally responsive practices within such frameworks in order to reduce disproportionate patterns (Gregory & Fergus, 2017; Vincent et al., 2011; Vincent & Tobin, 2011).

How Community Can Promote Equity in Schools

Community is the common thread that binds schools, students, and families. The importance of community in achieving equity can’t be overstated. That’s why it is incumbent upon schools to address and interrupt bias-based beliefs, particularly when communicating with students and families of color and/or low-income status.

Catapult Learning’s Professional Development solutions can help schools do just that through engaging workshop content and job-embedded coaching that support continual professional growth in the key areas of equity, cultural proficiency, and social-emotional learning. Through learning and sharing research-based practices, tools, strategies, Catapult can help districts develop positive school cultures and support optimal classroom learning environments.

Catapult’s professional development services, coaching, and programs also aim to enhance school-family-community partnerships in ways that celebrate the unique voices and experiences of all students, educators, administrators, and staff so that equity can be achieved in both the short- and long term. One such program is Catapult Learning’s Family Connections, which is designed to help bridge the gap between schools, families, and communities by strengthening a family’s ability to support the needs of children while instructing faculty and staff on the most effective ways to engage with families. Family Connections offers:

  • Education, counseling, and resource advocacy
  • Professional development and coordination services
  • Referral and support services

Learn more about Catapult Learning’s Family Connections program here.

Equity Solutions Are Within Reach

Catapult Learning offers support for educators to address bias-based beliefs and achieve equity at the school or district level. Consider the following workshops to help your district accomplish those goals.

  • Advancing Equity in the Classroom
    In this session, participants will learn how to foster meaningful teaching and learning that promotes equity by acknowledging, responding to, and celebrating students’ experiences so that student voice and agency within the learning community are recognized and amplified.
  • Cultural Competence
    Participants in this workshop will define cultural competence; examine how cultural views, attitudes, and beliefs impact the way educators interact with and respond to their students; identify the stages of cultural awareness and reflect on where they are in the process; and apply strategies and approaches to become a more culturally competent educator
  • Promoting Engagement and Achievement in a Community of Learners
    To close the engagement and achievement gaps for all students, educators must make the shift from generalized instructional strategies to responsive practices that embrace different backgrounds and experiences to advance opportunity and ensure fairness in the classroom. In this session, participants will learn strategies to foster a community of learning that centers students’ experiences and amplifies their voice and agency.
  • Promoting a Safe and Positive School Climate
    Studies have found that schools can address the root causes of bullying and related forms of school violence by prioritizing the development of a positive school climate. In this session, participants will explore ways to increase trust, accountability, inclusivity, and a stronger sense of community within their school. Participants will also examine practices that promote student voice and leadership when creating a school climate in which they feel safe and supported.

In addition to these effective and engaging workshops, Catapult Learning offers high-impact coaching that utilizes research-based strategies and data analysis as well as special consulting sessions with an expert in overcoming significant disproportionality. If you’re interested in a consulting session, please contact [email protected]

To learn more, schedule a call with Catapult Learning today.


Bodenhausen, G. (1990). Stereotypes as judgmental heuristics: Evidence of circadian variations in discrimination. Psychological Science, 1(5), 319 322.

Fiske, S. (1998). Stereotyping, prejudice, and discrimination. In S. Fiske, D. Gilbert, & L. Gardner (Eds.), The handbook of social psychology (pp. 357–411). McGraw-Hill

Galinsky, A. D., & Moskowitz, G. B. (2000). Perspective-taking: Decreasing stereotype expression, stereotype accessibility, and ingroup favoritism. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 78(4), 708–724.

Pettigrew, T. F. (1998). Intergroup contact theory. Annual Review of Psychology, 49, 65–85.

Pettigrew, T. F., & Tropp, L. R. (2006). A meta-analytic test of intergroup contact theory. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 90(5), 751–783.