School & District Management

Can an Increase in Empathy Lead to a Drop in Suspensions?

By Evie Blad — April 27, 2016 4 min read
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A simple exercise can build teachers’ sense of empathy for their students, an effect that may lead to a drop in suspensions without any formal changes in policy, Stanford University researchers say in a study published this week.

When teachers develop a greater sensitivity to their students’ experiences and intentions, students sense the change, which can help break a “self-perpetuating cycle of punishment and misbehavior” that occurs in some classrooms, says the study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.

Many schools have sought to reduce suspension rates in recent years, citing research about the negative effects of classroom removals on students’ academic and life outcomes. Critics of those efforts have said they can result in misbehavior going unpunished, leading to chaotic classrooms. But, the Stanford researchers suggest, if teachers change their mindsets while disciplining students, it may lead to less of a need for such discipline in the future by changing the classroom’s climate.

“We hypothesized that a punitive response to misbehavior can, ironically, alienate disaffected students and thus incite the destructive, oppositional behaviors it aims to prevent,” the authors write. “A response that values students’ perspectives and maintains high-quality relationships in disciplinary interactions may improve outcomes. Much research shows that feeling respect for and being respected by authority figures can motivate people to follow rules enforced by those figures, especially in conflicts. If teachers convey this respect while disciplining students, this may improve students’ behavior.”

The researchers worked with 31 math teachers in five diverse middle schools spread over three California districts, administering two online professional-development exercises over the course of a school year.

Teachers in the experimental group did a reading that encouraged them “to understand and value students’ experiences and negative feelings that can cause misbehavior and to sustain positive relationships when students misbehave,” the study says. Teachers were reminded that “a teacher who makes his or her students feel heard, valued, and respected shows them that school is fair and they can grow and succeed there.” These ideas were reinforced through stories from students (e.g., “One day I got detention, and instead of just sitting there, my teacher talked with me about what happened. He really listened to me. ... It felt good to know I had someone I could trust in school. ...”). Teachers then wrote how they incorporate or could incorporate these ideas in their own practice.”

Teachers in the control group did a reading on using technology to promote learning.

Students in the group whose teachers received professional development on empathy were half as likely to be suspended over the course of the school year than students whose teachers were in the control group, the researchers found, and the differences remained significant after controlling for race, gender, and other factors. Overrall rates of suspension were 4.8 percent for students in the experimental group and 9.6 percent for students in the control group. From the study:

Importantly, the empathic-mindset intervention did not attempt to teach teachers new skills for interacting with students or introduce new policies for how to discipline students. Nor did it attempt to build students' self-control or social-emotional skills, another common approach to improving student behavior. Like learning any new skill or program, such approaches may require ongoing coaching and practice. Instead, we assumed that teachers were capable of building better relationships with students and that students could behave more positively with more supportive treatment. The intervention simply encouraged teachers to view discipline as an opportunity to facilitate mutual understanding and better relationships and empowered teachers to do so in a manner effective for them and their students."

The intervention was built on the findings of two smaller experiments the researchers did that proved empathy changes teachers’ responses and that students respond positively to the new classroom dynamic.

In one experiment, researchers found that teachers who read a brief article suggesting “good teacher-student relationships are critical for students to learn self-control” were more likely to show empathetic responses to students than teachers who read an article that suggested “punishment is critical for teachers to take control of a classroom.” Teachers who read the first article were also less likely to label students as “trouble makers.”

In a second experiment, researchers surveyed college students, asking them to imagine themselves as middle-school students who had disrupted class by repeatedly walking around to throw away trash. Their teacher responded by either assigning detention and referring them to the principal’s office, a punitive response, or by asking them about their misbehavior and moving the wastebasket closer to their desk, an empathetic response. Survey respondents said they would respect the teacher with the empathetic response far more, and they also said they would feel more motivated to behave better in the future under empathetic conditions.

Image: Getty

Related reading:

A version of this news article first appeared in the Rules for Engagement blog.