In U.S. schools, disciplining with punishment is the norm. School suspension rates have nearly tripled in the last 30 years, with 11 percent of students suspended at some point in their school career. This happens even when the misbehavior is minor or non-violent and even though school suspension is linked to negative outcomes for students, both those suspended and their peers.

When students are misbehaving or disrupting class, it can be easy for even the most caring of teachers to fall into the trap of the quick fix: “You need to leave the classroom” and “It’s time to see the principal.”

What if teachers had an alternative strategy for dealing with student misbehavior—one that wasn’t punitive and was easy for them to implement in the middle of a busy classroom situation? What if they could apply a more empathic mindset, considering the student’s perspective and being sensitive to other issues that might be impacting the student’s decision to act out? How would this transform their disciplinary interactions with students, and how might that affect student behavior or student-teacher relationships?

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A recent study out of Stanford University set out to answer some of these questions. This study found that adopting an empathic mindset and empathic discipline strategies strengthened student-teacher relationships, encouraged better behavior from students, and cut school suspension rates in half.

A diverse group of teachers from five middle schools in California completed two online modules that encouraged them to adopt an empathic mindset. The first module, administered halfway through the fall semester, discussed reasons for student misbehavior—the difficult social and biological changes of adolescence, for instance—and emphasized positive student-teacher relationships. Teachers were reminded that a safe, caring environment where students feel valued and respected is crucial for school success; this idea was supported by stories from students.

Finally, the educators were asked to generate ideas about how they could incorporate these concepts into their own classrooms. They responded in line with an empathic mindset, noting that their students were good and unique individuals deserving of love and respect.

The second module, completed two months later, was structured similarly to the first and reinforced the same concepts. “Students’ feelings about and behavior in school can and do improve when teachers successfully convey the care and respect students crave,” teachers were reminded. At this time, their students also completed a survey on school climate.

Compared to a control group (who completed an activity similar in form, but focused on using technology to promote learning), the students of teachers who participated in the empathic-mindset training were half as likely to be suspended that school year—at a rate of 4.8 percent rather than 9.6 percent—regardless of race, gender, or previous suspensions. Two months into the training, students who had been suspended before—who normally felt less respected by teachers than other students—ended up feeling just as respected when their teachers had undergone the training.

Clearly, students benefit when teachers adopt a more empathic mindset. But what does that look like on a daily basis? Here are some suggestions for cultivating an empathic mindset and practicing empathic discipline as an educator:

1. Reframe the questions you ask when a student misbehaves

When a student misbehaves, your knee-jerk reaction might be to say, “What’s wrong with you?” With an empathic mindset, the question might change to “What happened to you?” Understanding student experiences is one of the main components of empathic discipline; asking the question “What happened to you?” allows you to gather information about how their experiences shape their behavior. Additionally, reframing the question in this way keeps you from making a value judgment about a student, where you risk labeling them as a “troublemaker.”

2. To better connect with students, explore your shared identity

Even though humans (teachers!) are predisposed to kindness and empathy, one of the biggest barriers to connecting with others—like students—is group difference. We are less motivated to help those who are different from us; at times, it might feel like you are worlds apart from your adolescent students. However, considering shared experiences or identities can mitigate some of that difference.

One way to do this is by completing a Shared Identity practice. Think of a student with whom you have trouble connecting. Then, make a list of all of the things you have in common with this student. Maybe you both have dogs for pets, or both like reading graphic novels, or both care for family members at home. When you’re finished with your list, look it over and consider all the ways in which you’re connected. Cultivating an empathic mindset requires challenging the preconceptions we have about others and searching for the commonalities we share, as opposed to the differences.

3. Make empathy part of your school culture, starting with staff

If you’re an administrator, start by making sure your teachers know that they, too, are valued. Circle Forward suggests starting staff meetings with a “check in,” asking questions that highlight the humanity of your educators. For example, you might ask, “What is one rose and one thorn in your life right now?,” “What is something you’re looking forward to this week?,” or “Tell us what a high point of your week has been.” Make sure you’re encouraging everyone to stay present and listen to the responses intently. Revealing personal information about ourselves can be difficult, as can listening with intent, but these practices are vital to cultivating empathy. 

One major benefit of adopting an empathic approach to discipline is that it requires no new programs or policies. Schools saw great change in a short time after a quick and flexible online training. Teachers already have the tools and values required to implement this approach; they just need to cultivate a different mindset.

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