It sounds plausible in theory: If schools have tough, zero-tolerance discipline policies with severe consequences, maybe teens will understand that they won’t get away with misbehavior and will, therefore, choose the right path. In practice, though, research suggests that zero-tolerance discipline policies, in which students are suspended or expelled for misbehavior, do not cut down on misconduct, jeopardize school engagement for vulnerable students, and can even create a “pipeline to prison” (American Psychological Association, 2008; Skiba, 2014).
Best practice recommendations for school discipline involve complicated and far-reaching approaches that address the school-wide community (e.g., anti-bullying programs), identify students at risk and implement preventative interventions, and targeted but flexible responses for students who have engaged in serious misbehavior.
So, it’s surprising and heartening to see a recent study by Jason Okonofua and his colleagues at Stanford University showing that a brief intervention encouraging teachers to respond empathically to students was able to reduce suspension rates by half among a diverse group of middle school students (Okonofua, Paunesku, & Walton, 2016).
The researchers posited that there’s often a downward spiral between punishment and misbehavior: When a teacher responds harshly to a student’s misbehavior, it hurts the relationship between them, provoking more misbehavior from the student and confirming the teacher’s belief that the student is a troublemaker, which triggers more harsh discipline… Okonofua and his colleagues conducted three experiments providing evidence that supports this model.
Experiment 1: Teacher mindset linked to discipline strategy
In the first experiment, the researchers found evidence for a link between teachers’ mindset and their discipline strategies. They had teachers read an essay about either the importance of empathy (“Good teacher-student relationships are critical for students to learn self-control.”) or the importance of punishment (“Punishment is critical for teachers to take control of the classroom.”). Compared to teachers who read the punishment essay, teachers who read the empathy essay reported that they would respond less harshly to three descriptions of minor misbehavior incidents and were also less likely to consider the example students troublemakers.
Experiment 2: Teacher discipline strategy linked to student attitudes
In a second experiment, Okonofua found a connection between teacher discipline strategies and student motivation to behave well. College students read a vignette about a middle-school student disrupting a class by repeatedly walking around to throw away trash. In one version of the vignette, the teacher gave a detention and sent the student to the principal. In another version, the teacher asked the student about the misbehavior and moved the trash can closer. Compared to those who read the empathic version, college students who read the punitive version of the vignette said that as middle-school students in this scenario, they would respect the teacher less and be less motivated to behave well.
Experiment 3: Encouraging teacher empathy affects teacher-student relationships and student suspensions
These first two experiments dealt with hypothetical situations, but the third experiment provides real-life evidence for a connection between teacher attitudes and discipline strategies. Math teachers at diverse middle schools participated in two online sessions encouraging empathy toward students. They were told that the goal of the sessions was “to collect their perspectives as experienced teachers on how best to handle difficult interactions with students, especially disciplinary encounters…so future teachers can benefit from your insights.” In other words, the teachers were treated as experts, rather than as people in need of correction.
The first session involved reading an article and stories about painful feelings of adolescents and how caring responses from teachers can help them grow and succeed. Teachers then wrote about how they incorporate or could incorporate these ideas into their work.
Two months later, teachers participated in a follow-up session with another article, story, and writing assignment about the benefits of teachers giving students the care and respect they crave.
A control group of math teachers who participated in similar training related to using technology to promote learning.
The students of teachers who received the empathy intervention had half as many suspensions as those whose teachers received the control (technology) intervention. Moreover, among students who were most at risk, because they had a history of prior suspensions, those whose teachers had received the empathy intervention felt more respected by their teachers than those whose teacher received the control intervention.
Okonofua and colleagues note that their intervention did not teach skills or direct teachers to ignore misbehavior. Instead, it emphasized the importance of the teacher-student relationship and trusted teachers to know how to build and strengthen these. Some of the ideas teachers mentioned were quite touching. For instance, 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!”
Implications for parents
It’s easy to see how these results could translate to parenting. When we’re feeling angry with our children, it’s easy to focus on punishment. This study, however, fits with two things I often say to parents in my practice:
1) Children learn, not from suffering, but from doing it right.
2) We never go wrong by reaching first for empathy.
We may not agree with our children or do exactly what they want, but by genuinely trying to understand our children’s perspective, we can respond more thoughtfully. We can work with them to prevent and plan for difficult situations or help them make amends for mistakes. Like the teachers in this study, making a commitment to try to reach for empathy for our children also allows us to connect with our best possible parent selves.