There is growing consensus that the use of punitive school discipline is excessive and problematic. Policies that promote suspension as the primary solution to misbehavior in the classroom don’t make better schools: they don’t serve as a meaningful deterrent. They don’t provide academic benefits for the students who remain in the classroom. And they don’t improve teachers’ job satisfaction or retention; despite years of zero-tolerance policies, teachers still report student behavior as a key reason for leaving the profession.

So what can be done?

Jason Okonofua, and Mindset Scholars David Paunesku and Gregory Walton of Stanford University decided to focus on the quality of relationships between students and teachers. Research has shown that mutual respect between individuals and authority figures can motivate people to follow rules, particularly during times of conflict. In a new article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the researchers show that a brief exercise targeted at teachers’ mindsets can transform their discipline practices in ways that reduce suspensions and foster trusting relationships with their students.

“Punitive discipline policies make students feel disrespected,” says Okonofua. “And when teachers see students as ‘troublemakers’ whose behavior is fixed, rather than as young people who can grow and change with help, they may be more likely to rely on punitive discipline policies that strain their relationships with students.”

Past research in psychology has shown that it is possible to teach people more productive beliefs, which then lead them to interact differently with the world—sparking a positive recursive cycle that reinforces these productive beliefs and behaviors. “If we could help teachers see the potential for students to learn to behave more appropriately in classroom contexts, we thought we could humanize students and encourage teachers to prioritize their relationships with students, especially when they are misbehaving. And in doing so, promote greater trust and better behavior among students.”

The researchers had 31 math teachers at 5 ethnically diverse middle schools in California participate in a brief online exercise. Teachers randomly assigned to the treatment condition read an article about non-pejorative and developmentally appropriate reasons why students might misbehave in class. For example, a student might put her head on her desk because she didn’t get enough sleep or act defiantly because of the stressors and experiences of adolescence. The exercise also emphasized how positive relationships with students can facilitate their development and that it is critical to prioritize sustaining these positive relationships in disciplinary encounters. The exercise encouraged teachers to understand and value students’ experiences and discouraged them from labeling students as either ‘bad’ or ‘good’. Teachers in a control group completed a similarly formatted exercise that focused on the benefits of technology in the classroom. The online exercise comprised of 2 sessions, which took a total of 70 minutes to complete.

The empathy exercise halved the suspension rates of participating teachers’ students over the school year, from 9.6% to 4.8%. The researchers found effects among students who are more likely to be suspended: those with a history of suspension, boys, and African American and Latino students. The results suggest that when students have at least one teacher with a more empathic mindset about misbehavior, students become less likely to misbehave not only in that teacher’s class but also in all classes. A change to one teacher’s mindset led students to experience a better social world within their schools, not just one better teacher-student relationship.

The researchers see great hope in the results of their experiment. “No one goes into teaching because they want to punish students,” says Walton. “Teachers want to help students become productive citizens. But punitive discipline policies have led us astray. Our study shows that simply reminding teachers of their positive goals in working with misbehaving students and helping them think through how they want to do this can meaningfully benefit both teachers and students. It helps teachers be who they want to be in the classroom. And it helps students grow in school as people.”

For a summary of the study, read our research brief.

To explore media coverage of this study, check out the following articles:

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