School suspension rates have nearly tripled in the United States since the 1970s, rising from just 3.7% of all students in 1974 to nearly 11% in 2011. That’s a big deal because missed class means missed learning, and suspensions can predict future unemployment and even incarceration. Now, a new study suggests that even a minor attitude adjustment among teachers can have a dramatic effect on those rates: Math teachers encouraged to be more empathetic saw student suspensions drop by half.
Psychologist Jason Okonofua, who led the new study, spent his early years attending public school in Memphis, Tennessee. In 10th grade, his good grades landed him a spot at a prep school in Rhode Island. When he arrived, Okonofua was struck by how differently the teachers responded to their students—if a student felt something was wrong and spoke out, for example, teachers would encourage him to voice his opinions. The same behavior in his former school would likely have landed the kid in trouble for talking back. “They were totally different approaches,” he says.
That experience made Okonofua—now at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California—curious about how student-teacher relationships predict student success. Although many factors figure into the likelihood of suspension, one of the most reliable is whether a student has been suspended before. One possible explanation for that, Okonofua says, is that a student’s first suspension leads to a breakdown in trust and respect for their teachers, triggering a vicious cycle of more misbehavior and more suspensions.
The researchers’ first step: see whether they could affect teachers’ mindsets toward their students, making them either more punitive or empathetic. They split 39 K–12 teachers from five California public schools into two groups and randomly assigned them to read one of two research articles: one that said “good teacher-student relationships are critical for students to learn self-control” and another that said “punishment is critical for teachers to take control of the classroom.” Next, they asked teachers to explain how they would discipline a hypothetical student named Darrell, who did annoying things such as getting up to throw away trash in the middle of class rather than waiting for permission or a break. Teachers who read the punitive article recommended more than 1.5 times as many disciplinary actions for Darrell—sending him to the hall or the principal, for example. Teachers who read the empathetic article, in contrast, recommended about 1.5 times as many nonpunitive responses, like talking to him and asking whether there were anything he needed.
Next, the team tested whether the results would hold up for teachers and students in the real world of middle school. They targeted 31 California math teachers in part because math class is a place where “a lot of relationships break down,” as many children struggle with the subject, he says. The 1682 students in the study were racially and socioeconomically diverse, with up to 70% enrolled in free or reduced-price lunch programs.
One group of math teachers completed a short online exercise emphasizing empathy, which included readings about research that showed how caring relationships with adults contributed to student success. It also included writing prompts in which teachers shared their insights about empathy in the classroom. For example, one teacher wrote: “I feel I need to earn my students’ respect and trust. I know many of them have had poor experiences with past teachers so I need to prove to my students that I am there for them and will not let them fail.” A second group completed a similar exercise. But instead of empathy, they read and wrote about the importance of technology to student development.
The team tracked suspension rates for a year after the exercises. By examining official school records, they found that 9.8% of students whose teachers had done the technology exercise had been suspended. In contrast, only 4.6% of students whose math teacher had completed the online exercise on empathy were suspended, the team reports today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Although the findings need to be replicated with other teachers at other schools, the study suggests that “by changing the mindset of just one of their teachers, students had better behavior across all of their classes,” Okonofua says.
The findings clearly demonstrate that how teachers view their students’ needs can have a direct impact on student performance, says Frank Worrell, an educational psychologist at the University of California (UC), Berkeley. They also highlight the importance of teacher expectations, he says. “Those who too quickly decide that a student is a troublemaker will be less successful in helping that student gain an education.”
Although there are “scores” of studies showing that students with better relationships with their teachers have better outcomes, “what is exciting about this study … is that we are now beginning to get insights into systematic approaches we might take to actually improve these relationships,” adds Hunter Gehlbach, an educational psychologist at UC Santa Barbara.