Teaching empathy may help reduce school suspensions


NEW YORK, NEW YORK – JANUARY 05: A masked teacher who wished not be identified (L), gives students a lesson in her classroom at Yung Wing School P.S. 124 on January 05, 2022 in New York City. Mayor Eric Adams of New York City is keeping classrooms open for in-person lessons despite prolific student and teacher absences due to the surge in Omicron cases. (Photo by Michael Loccisano/Getty Images)

(NewsNation) — Schools have long used suspensions to respond to infractions from their students, but these suspensions can often have a long-lasting negative impact on the students who are suspended, harming student achievement and increasing dropouts.

Researchers have also noticed a substantial racial disparity in who is suspended — with African American students often getting suspended at much higher rates than other students for the exact same behavior.

That’s a problem UC Berkeley psychology professor Jason Okonofua and a team of researchers sought to address. They designed a short online exercise — that can be completed in two sittings throughout the school year — to teach educators how to adopt an empathic mindset and engage with students who were misbehaving in order to develop a more positive relationship with them.

As part of the exercise, teachers are reminded of the importance of showing students they value their perspectives. Teachers are also provided with narratives that demonstrate the power of engaging students with empathy.

In one example, a seventh-grade African American student explained they didn’t feel they belonged in the classroom and that they would misbehave until a teacher decided to sit down and talk to them about how they felt.

The exercise never lectures teachers or makes them feel like they’re the problem. Educators are invited to submit their own input and are treated as professionals.

Okonofua’s team first piloted the exercise in school districts in Northern California and the number of suspensions was cut in half over the course of the year, they found in a study that was published in 2016.

They later tried it in Florida in 2017, where researchers felt the diversity was a better representation of the country. They found again suspensions were reduced by about half, with a decrease of 45% in racial disparities among suspended students.

Surprisingly, they found that the reduction in suspensions persisted even past the first year of the intervention. Okonofua couldn’t say for sure why this might be.

“I would hypothesize something’s changing fundamentally by virtue of having just one teacher treat you verbally and non-verbally in a more empathetic way would leave students to feel more of a sense of belonging in that classroom … they would be more likely to give adults at their school the benefit of the doubt,” he said, adding that more research would be needed to be sure.

The team has more recently been working with school districts across America to implement the interventions in more places.

Okonofua said his approach is different from implicit bias training, which has become common across schools and other institutions that want to tackle bias and reduce disparities.

“The experimentation, the research shows that it has very mixed results, and a lot of the time it’s not actually effective at getting rid of people’s bias for a long term like beyond one week for example,” he said. “The bias comes back and…those types of approaches can also backfire with leading people to feel like they’re being attacked or blamed, being called racist or sexist or things of that nature.”

He said his training, on the other hand, focuses not on eliminating bias in people’s minds but on changing their behavior.

“We’ve been able to change the consequences of the potential bias, the actual real-world outcome,” he said.

Okonofua did stress that simply training people on a more empathetic approach isn’t enough — institutions also have to make sure they are creating an environment where people can have conversations.

These environments should make “it more possible that a teacher can have a conversation with a student that can be informal and not necessarily about academics in which that teacher can find out more about that student’s perspective.”

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