Empathic Discipline Could Cut Suspensions

Students are back in school and the educational year is heating up. Districts are already having to make hard decisions about how they will deal with disciplinary issues as students, and that means it is only a matter of time before parents start hearing about suspensions. But some experts are saying that a shift to empathic discipline could keep kids in school and cut suspensions.

New School Year, Old Disciplinary Issues

Every school year, over 3.5 million students (K-12) are suspended at least once. That’s 7% of the public school population, according to the Department of Education. At first blush, that may seem like public schools must be a dangerous place. In fact, 95% of those suspensions are for “disruption” or “willful defiance”, not violence. That means the vast majority of students are being kicked out of school because of relational conflicts with teachers, staff, or other students.

Statistics show that the chances of suspension skyrocket when teachers and students don’t share a common community. African-American students are over 3 times as likely to be suspended or expelled than their white counterparts. And that creates a culture where students distrust their teachers and negative attitudes compound on each other to cause bigger problems. Students see their classmates being pushed out of school for trivial offenses. They they begin to grow anxious that they’re going to be targeted next.

This same arrangement can also wear on teachers. Years of struggling to maintain control of their classrooms cause many educators to grow disillusioned. They could easily fall into the habit of assuming the worst of their students.

Empathic Discipline Trains Teachers to Think Like Students

Empathy training is a key part of relationship coaching and marriage therapy. It is designed to ease conflict by helping people understand one another’s point of view. Jason Okonofua, a psychology professor at Berkeley, and Stanford psychologists Gregory M. Walton, Jennifer L. Eberhardt and Dave Paunesku, are applying that idea to education. Their idea is to train teachers to understand the way teenagers make sense of the world.

Okonofua’s perspective is unique because it focuses on teachers, rather than students. Instead of trying to figure out what students need to change to help them focus on the task at hand, Okonofua and the Stanford team have created brief intervention models that asks teachers to think in terms of “empathic discipline”. It encourages teachers to think of their middle-school and high-school students as adolescents testing out new identities. For example, one module advises trainees:

“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.”

The goal is to combine discipline with rapport, helping teachers relate to their students as people, rather than subjects. In 2016, the psychologists implemented a study including 31 middle school math teachers, with remarkable success. After completing the training, the teachers cut the online suspensions they recommended in half. Students involved in the study reported respecting their teachers more. Those who had already been suspended felt a higher regard for their teachers who had completed the training. Now, Okonofua is ready to roll the program out to 50,000 students in 50 schools nationwide.

Teachers Urged to Find Similarities with Students

At the same time, Dr. Hunter Gehlbach, an educational psychologist at the University of California at Santa Barbara, is taking a different approach to teaching educators to empathize with their students. He tried to bring teachers and students in one large, diverse high school together by pointing out what they have in common. Whether it is a shared birthday, a moral value, or a hobby, when educators and students are able to draw these connections, they form closer connections, especially between pairs that may have initially been seen as dissimilar. After half a semester, the students’ performance had improved and the racial achievement gap had closed by over 60%.

Empathic discipline isn’t meant to turn teachers into softies or let students get away with anything. But by encouraging teachers to come at non-violent disciplinary issues from a point of understanding, educational professionals are able to close the achievement gap, reduce suspensions, and keep more students in school.

Lisa J. Schmidt is an attorney at Schmidt & Long, PLLC, in Ferndale, Michigan. She helps Metro Detroit students and their parents address discipline and special education issues at school. If you or your child is facing suspension, contact Schmidt & Long today to schedule a consultation.