Empathetic teachers keep unruly kids in school

"Teachers are caught between two models, a punitive model that says you have to punish kids to get them to behave and an older model that goes to the heart of the profession, which says that teaching is all about building strong relationships with children, especially when they struggle," says Gregory Walton. (Credit: iStockphoto)

Middle school teachers who use empathy, not punishment, to discipline can greatly reduce the number of students who are suspended throughout the year.

A new exercise shows that the less confrontational approach reduced by half the percentage of students who got suspended—from 9.6 percent to 4.8 percent. Suspension can be harmful to students because it denies them opportunities to learn, damages relationships, and can set them on other risky paths.

A central tenet of the teaching profession is to build positive relationships with students, especially those that are struggling. But some teachers are exposed to a “default punitive mindset” in school settings due to zero-tolerance policies on student misbehavior.

“It is heartbreaking,” says Gregory Walton, associate professor of psychology at Stanford University. “Teachers are caught between two models, a punitive model that says you have to punish kids to get them to behave and an older model that goes to the heart of the profession, which says that teaching is all about building strong relationships with children, especially when they struggle.”

Student-teacher relationships

No one enters the teaching profession in order to send kids to the principal’s office for minor misbehavior, Walton says. “But punitive policies can lead teachers astray. That makes kids feel disrespected and ultimately contributes to worse behavior.”

“All kids need supportive, trusting relationships to help them grow and improve,” says Jason Okonofua, psychology post-doctoral fellow and lead author of the study that is published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. “Our intervention helped teachers reconnect with those values, who they really want to be as a teacher, and how they want to relate to their students.”

For the study, researchers conducted three experiments. The first tested whether 39 teachers could be encouraged to adopt an empathic rather than punitive mindset about discipline. Teachers wrote briefly about how “good teacher-student relationships are critical for students to learn self-control” (empathic mindset) or how “punishment is critical for teachers to take control of the classroom” (punitive mindset).

The findings showed that giving teachers an opportunity to express their empathic values—to understand students’ perspectives and to sustain positive relationships with students when they misbehave—improved student-teacher relationships and discipline outcomes.

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In fact, teachers given the punitive prime said they would punish a hypothetical misbehaving student more harshly. They were more likely to send the student to the principal’s office. But those given the empathic prime were more likely to say they would talk with the student about his behavior, and less likely to label him a troublemaker.

“A focus on relationships helps humanize students.” Okonofua says. “Then you see them as not just a label but as growing people who can change, who can learn to behave more appropriately, with help.”

In the second experiment, 302 college students imagined themselves as middle school students who had disrupted class. They imagined being disciplined in either of the ways the teachers in the first experiment described, punitive or empathic.

The results showed that participants responded far more favorably when the teacher took an empathic response. They said they would respect the teacher much more, and would be more motivated to behave well in class in the future.

Across the board improvements

The researchers also examined whether an empathic mindset created better relationships between teachers and students and reduced student suspensions over an academic year. This experiment involved 31 math teachers and 1,682 students at five ethnically diverse middle schools in three California school districts.

Teachers reviewed articles and stories that described how negative feelings can lead students to misbehave in school and emphasized the importance of understanding students and maintaining positive relationships with students even when they misbehave.

Then teachers described how they maintain positive relationships with students when they misbehave, in an effort to help future educators better handle discipline problems.

The findings revealed that students whose teachers completed the empathic mindset exercise—as compared to those who completed a control exercise–were half as likely to get suspended over the school year, from 9.6 percent to 4.8 percent.

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The reduction was just as large for students from groups at higher risk of suspension, including boys, African American and Latino students, and students with a history of suspension.

Moreover, the most at-risk students, those with a history of suspension, reported feeling more respected by their teachers several months after the intervention.

It would be easy to deliver the intervention, an online exercise, at near-zero marginal cost to large samples of teachers and students, the researchers write, and the findings could mark a paradigm shift in society’s understanding of the origins of and remedies for discipline problems.

Teachers responded with feeling when asked to write about how they work to sustain positive relationships with struggling children, Walton says. One teacher wrote: “I never hold grudges. I try to remember that they are all the son or daughter of someone who loves them more than anything in the world. They are the light of someone’s life.”

Source: Stanford University