New UW–Madison study finds LGBTQ+ inclusivity training for elementary educators leads to fewer disciplinary issues for all students

By Laurel White

Training elementary school teachers in inclusive practices for LGBTQ+ students leads to lower disciplinary rates for all students, according to a new study from UW–Madison School of Education researchers. 

The study, published in the Journal of School Leadership, evaluated 33 elementary schools in a large, urban, Midwestern school district. Fifteen of those schools offered a multi-year program for all educators in their school to learn about and plan the best ways to support lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and gender-expansive (LGBTQ+) students. It compared trends in state data on student suspensions, expulsions, assaults, and other school violations between schools that participated in the program and those that didn’t. It found the schools that offered the intensive professional development opportunity saw declines in discipline issues for their entire student population.


Mollie McQuillan, an assistant professor in the School of Education’s Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis, co-authored the paper with doctoral students Erin Gill and Xue Gong. The co-authors say the analysis highlights the importance of sustained efforts to build and use supportive policies, procedures, and practices for LGBTQ + students.

“School cultures that value diversity and support students with marginalized identities create positive climates that enhance all students’ abilities to thrive,” they wrote. 

The study also found schools with more low-income BIPOC students were less likely to adopt such training. However, they found those schools also experienced declines in disciplinary incidents following the inclusivity training when they did choose to offer it. 

“While our promising results suggest the (inclusivity professional development) program may positively influence student disciplinary outcomes, inequitable access to the program remains a concern,” the co-authors wrote in the study. “Selection into the program raises equity concerns about which students have access to IPD-trained teachers, who may be better able to support LGBTQ + students and foster inclusive classrooms.”


The co-authors noted a number of previous studies have shown professional development focused on inclusivity plays an important role in shifting educators’ beliefs, attitudes about gender and sexuality, knowledge, and skills.

The study also identified some key elements of successful professional development, including collective participation (getting an entire school and community involved), active learning (small discussion groups and breakout activities), and duration (offering a program that continues over an extended period of time). 

“In other words, the teacher training sessions focused on content delivery and developing new skills should be only one component of an intensive effort to reform cis- and heteronormative policies, procedures, practices, and beliefs in schools,” the co-authors wrote.


The co-authors hope the analysis reaches policymakers and educational leaders who make crucial decisions about professional development opportunities for educators.

McQuillan and Gill also partnered on another recent paper that found moves to remote learning during the COVID-19 pandemic may have mitigated some mental health challenges for LGBTQ+ students.

This spring, McQuillan was honored by the American Educational Research Association with an Emerging Scholar award, as well as an Outstanding Policy Report award in the educational policy and politics division.

Read the full study, “LGBTQ+-Inclusive Professional Development in Elementary Schools: Does It Matter to Schoolwide Discipline?”, here

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