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Don’t Suspend Students. Empathize.

David L. Kirp

To his teachers at Ridgeway High School in Memphis, Jason Okonofua was a handful. During class, his mind drifted and he would lose the thread of the lesson. He slouched at his desk and dozed off.

His teachers seemed to take it personally, as a sign of disrespect. He earned detention and was suspended several times.

Jason wasn’t trying to rile his teachers. He wasn’t paying attention in class because his thoughts were being consumed by his friends’ misfortunes — one had just been arrested, another had accidentally shot himself. He couldn’t stay awake because he was bone-tired from having worked at a restaurant until midnight.

His teachers knew none of this. They regarded Jason as a troublemaker. Research shows that his being black — in his case, Nigerian-American — made it more likely that she’d jump to that conclusion. Jason felt attacked and humiliated, and reacted defiantly.

Today Jason Okonofua is a newly minted psychology professor at Berkeley whose research focuses on empathy. As a Ph.D. student, he examined how helping couples understand each other’s feelings enabled them to talk to, not at, each another. Then he began applying the idea to education: How can you help teachers understand the ways adolescents make sense of the world? Tackling the problem from the teachers’ instead of the students’ perspective was a novel approach. If he could change the behavior of a single teacher, could he improve the chances of a whole classroom of Jason Okonofuas?

The answer, it turns out, is yes.

Mini-rebellions like young Jason’s unfold in classrooms thousands of times a day. The Department of Education estimates that 7 percent of the student population — nearly 3.5 million students in kindergarten through high school — was suspended at least once in the 2011-12 academic year, the last for which these data are available. Despite the Checkpoint Charlie climate in many urban high schools, where students are herded through metal detectors when they enter the building, suspensions are rarely prompted by violence. Ninety-five percent are for “willful defiance” or “disruption.”

African-American students are hit hardest. They are more than three times as likely than their white classmates to be suspended or expelled. As a result, as early as middle school, many black students have concluded that when it comes to discipline, the cards are stacked against them. They stop trusting their teachers, and their negative attitude becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. They fall behind when they’re suspended, and many drop out or are pushed out.

Getting rid of bad-seed students is supposed to benefit their “good” classmates, but that turns out not to be the case. When students witness their classmates being shown the door for trivial offenses, they worry that they may be next. Studies show they grow anxious and do worse on high-stakes math and reading tests.

In short, this kind of discipline is a lose-lose proposition. What’s to be done? Enter empathy.

Many new teachers are driven to give poor kids the tools they need to do well in school and beyond. But within a few years teachers often grow disillusioned by the struggle to maintain control of their classroom. Dr. Okonofua, together with the Stanford psychologists Gregory M. Walton, Jennifer L. Eberhardt and Dave Paunesku, wanted to change this.

They created brief interventions that stressed the power of “empathic discipline,” including a 45-minute online tutorial and one 25-minute online module. In a 2016 study, they had 31 middle school math teachers take the tutorial. The teachers read stories on how what looks like disobedience may reflect the ways teenagers are learning how to navigate the world — not as troublemakers, but as adolescents, testing out new identities. “A teacher who makes his or her students feel heard, valued and respected shows them that school is fair and that they can grow and succeed there,” one of the segments advises.

The aim isn’t to turn teachers into softies who let students get away with murder, but to demonstrate that they can combine discipline with rapport, to good effect.

The results of this experiment wildly exceeded the researchers’ expectations — the teachers’ online experience halved suspension rates. Surveys of the students also found that they came to respect their teachers more. The most disaffected — those who had already been suspended — reported feeling more regard for teachers who had taken the tutorial.

This fall, a similar online exercise, designed by Dr. Okonofua and a colleague to help teachers appreciate how difficult — and how essential — it is to reach across the racial divide, will be rolled out in 50 middle and high schools that enroll more than 50,000 students.

For Dr. Okonofua, it’s personal. “I think about my older brothers, who were suspended all the time, and were in and out of trouble when they were teenagers,” he told me. He has set his sights high, saying, “I want to close the black-white suspension gap.”

Hunter Gehlbach, an educational psychologist at the University of California at Santa Barbara, has also been researching empathy between teachers and students, and has come up with a different model for addressing it.

“When I taught high school, I was fascinated that our capacity to read other people could be so high one day and fly out the window by the next day,” he told me. “I believed that if we could improve relationships, there would be a noticeable downstream impact.”

Dr. Gehlbach’s “aha!” moment came when he watched his 3-year-old daughter talking with her best friend. “I like ice cream,” his daughter said. “I do, too,” her friend replied. The girls ran through the list of things they liked — chocolate ice cream, their pets — and disliked. When the friend said she didn’t like pizza, the daughter agreed, even though she actually loves pizza.

“I was struck by the machinations these little girls went through to establish common ground,” he recalled. “I felt there must be something powerful in how similarities help us connect with others.” And when he found research that linked similarity — commonalities as trivial as research participants’ learning they had the same birthday — with building relationships, he was off and running.

Together with several colleagues, he set out to bring teachers and students in a large, diverse high school closer by giving them information about what they shared, such as a passion for music, a wry sense of humor or even similar values.

Half a semester later, the teachers saw themselves as having formed closer ties with their students, especially those whom they might have initially perceived as being dissimilar. “When we convince teachers they are actually similar to their students, there’s a big effect on grades,” said Todd Rogers, a Harvard psychologist and a co-author of the study. If anything, that’s an understatement — the students’ performance improved so much that the racial achievement gap at those schools was cut by more than 60 percent.

These light-touch interventions aren’t panaceas, but they may keep a great many students out of trouble and doing better academically. And they remind teachers why they entered the profession in the first place — to share knowledge and values, not to be disciplinarians.

 

David L. Kirp is a professor at the Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley, a senior fellow at the Learning Policy Institute and a contributing opinion writer.

This article originally appeared in the New York Times.