NIH to Fund UA Study of Student Aggression, Teacher Biases

NIH to Fund UA Study of Student Aggression, Teacher Biases

Dr. Sara McDaniel directs the Alabama Positive Behavior Support Office at UA’s College of Education.

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — The National Institutes of Health has awarded The University of Alabama a $2.4 million grant to create interventions to lower aggression in middle-school students and lessen disproportionalities in school discipline.

Dr. Sara McDaniel, UA associate professor of education and director of the Alabama Positive Behavior Support Office, will serve as principal investigator for “Reducing Youth Violence and Racism/Discrimination: The Efficacy of Comprehensive Prevention Strategies (CPS).”

The study will combine existing elements of Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports, widely implemented in schools across the country, with Coping Power, an intervention program for children with aggression problems, into a two-tiered program that will address interracial and intraracial youth aggression and implicit biases in teachers that lead to disproportionate rates of exclusionary discipline.

The five-year study will include 20 middle schools in large districts in Alabama. Students from diverse race and socioeconomic backgrounds will be included.

The first level of the study will add equity and race components to existing PBIS curriculum and will focus on school climate and how teachers can create better understandings of cultural differences between themselves and students.

Ultimately, through yearlong professional development, teachers will begin to “think differently” and beyond their biases for equitable discipline, McDaniel said.

“We can’t change the implicit biases that we develop throughout our lives, but what we can do is get [teachers] to identify that, and in that split-second they have – what we call a ‘vulnerable decision point’ – to respond without applying their biases,” McDaniel said. “This will help students with the cultural climate of the building, and in receiving adequate supports and equitable access.”

McDaniel said her work implementing PBIS in schools in Alabama has informed the need for this study, but that disproportionalities in exclusionary discipline, such as suspensions, exist across the country, particularly in black males. The teaching force nationwide is majority white – 82 percent – which creates a majority culture that differs greatly from the student body. Problems arise when behavior that doesn’t fit with majority culture is judged at a harsher level.

“Because of the race component, this is really important work for Alabama,” McDaniel said. “We’ve already had these discussions in a school district in Alabama, and I’ve heard from parents of black children in the district who’ve said, ‘I can tell teachers are thinking about it; instead of automatically sending my child to the office, I’m getting emails about it, or I’m being asked to come in and talk about it.’ And that’s what we want to happen. We want educators to understand the cultural mismatch and understand the mismatch of their culture and students of different backgrounds.”

The second level of the study that addresses raced-based youth aggression will add racism and discrimination content to Coping Power, a school-based preventative intervention curriculum developed and implemented globally by Dr. John Lochman, UA professor emeritus.

Lochman will serve as co-principal investigator. Co-investigators include: Dr. Daniel Cohen, UA assistant professor, school psychology; Dr. Kent McIntosh, professor, University of Oregon College of Education, and expert in PBIS; Dr. Tamika La Salle, assistant professor of school psychology, University of Connecticut, and expert in school climate and culturally responsive education practices; and Dr. Sterett Mercer, associate professor of special education, University of British Columbia (Canada), will serve as a consultant.


David Miller, UA Strategic Communications, 205-348-0825,


Dr. Sara McDaniel, executive director, Alabama Positive Behavior Supports Office, 205-348-6093,