A little bit of empathy can go a long way.
Students who get suspended from school are more likely to later drop out and face jail time. By making students stay home, school suspensions -- which disproportionately impact students of color -- sometimes push kids out of school and into the criminal justice system.
But there are easy ways for teachers to reduce their reliance on this punishment. A few researchers from Stanford University found that when teachers are reminded to approach students with an empathic mindset, rates of school suspensions go down.
"We didn’t tell teachers to not suspend students or do something when a child misbehaves. We refocused their mindset and they were led to do things they already knew would be better," said Jason Okonofua, Stanford psychology postdoctoral fellow and study researcher.
The study defines an empathic mindset as one in which “good teacher–student relationships are critical for students to learn self-control.” This is compared to a punitive mindset, in which teachers view punishment as an essential element of controlling a classroom.
The study involved three different experiments. The first experiment involved asking one group of teachers to read an article about the empathic mindset while the other read an article about the punitive mindset. Next, all teachers read about incidents of student misbehavior and were asked to describe how they would respond. Teachers who read about the empathic mindset punished students less harshly and were less likely to label the child a troublemaker.
In the second experiment, a group of college students were asked to imagine themselves as middle school students who had misbehaved. Their imagined teacher responded to this misbehavior in either the punitive mindset or empathic mindset. Students were subsequently asked how much they respected their fictional teacher and whether that impacted their motivation to behave well in the future. The responses favored teachers who had acted with an empathic mindset.
Researchers also went into five diverse middle schools in California and asked 31 math teachers to participate in 45-minute and 25-minute online exercises. During the exercises, some teachers read articles that emphasized the empathic mindset. The simple activity substantially reduced the suspension rates of their students.
The study looked at 1,682 of the teachers' students. Around 5 percent of students whose teachers read about the empathic mindset were suspended that school year. By comparison, about 10 percent of students whose teachers did a control exercise were suspended. The study shows how one teacher's behavior could change a child's entire year.
"By having just one teacher who is more empathic towards them, students are less likely to be suspended by any teacher in any part of the school," said Okonofua. "We tweaked one part of the school day for the children and that changed their entire social world there and how they felt about school-at-large."
The intervention is easily replicable, according to Okonofua. The online exercise is cheap, he said, and teachers can do it on their own time.
"This is just a matter of a teacher on their own accord signing in and doing it," he said.
Jahana Hayes, a Connecticut educator who was recently named the National Teacher of the Year, thinks teachers should also teach empathy to students.
“We spend a lot of time teaching kids to be self-sufficient and high achievers, and I think we really need to spend some time also teaching them: OK, now what do you do with that? What does it mean? You have this knowledge and information, how can you use it to improve the human condition?” Hayes said. “I think we need to nurture empathy from a very early age.”
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