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How to Cut Disparities in School Suspension Rates

An empathic mindset in teachers cuts racial disparities in suspension rates.

Key points

  • A 40-minute online empathy exercise with teachers has shown to reduce the risk their students are suspended over the school year.
  • This empathy exercise is most effective for racially stigmatized students in school, cutting the racial gap in suspensions by up to 45%.
  • The benefits of this empathy exercise appear to last throughout the school year and even through the next one when students have new teachers.

This post was co-authored by Jason Okonofua, Ph.D., and Gregory Walton, Ph.D.

It has been decades since we attended middle school, but each of us can still tell stories of conflicts we had there. Stories of times we tried to stand up for ourselves, of teachers who cracked down, of conflicts that spun out of control. These stories stick in the craw. And it’s not just us.

Today in the United States, approximately 5% of K-12 students are removed from the learning environment by way of suspensions each year. That means that, in any given class of 20 kids, one student on average will get suspended over the school year. Black and Hispanic students face the brunt of it. That is particularly concerning since suspensions are associated with long-term negative consequences such as higher risks of underemployment and incarceration.

What is going on? Kids go to school to learn. Teachers come to teach. What gets in the way? And what can we do about it?

The worries that teachers and students face

In thinking about this problem, we focused on the worries that teachers and students face as they come to school: Teachers are under a lot of pressure, to manage classes and help students learn. They can ask, “Will I be able to reach my goals to educate students?” If a student misbehaves, they might wonder, “Do I need to punish this student to maintain my control of class?”

Students have their own worries: “Will I be able to reach my goals to learn?” And, if they have a conflict with a teacher, they can wonder, “Do teachers respect me? Or are they biased against me?”

Put these two perspectives together and a vicious cycle ensues. A student has a bad day and falls asleep in class. A teacher has little patience and punishes the student. The student feels disrespected and acts disrespectful back.

No one wins.

To make matters worse, this cycle can be most severe when applied to kids from groups stigmatized in schools. For example, stereotypes cast Black students as violent or out-of-control. Then, if one misbehaves, it’s especially easy to wonder, “Will this kid be a troublemaker?”

What could we do?

An online empathy exercise

We decided to help teachers answer the questions they faced. No, you don’t have to punish kids when they misbehave. In a roughly 40-minute online experience, we shared articles and stories from both prior teachers and students with new middle school teachers that talked about listening to students when they misbehave, understanding their perspective, and how this approach could sustain relationships and help kids develop.

That’s not rocket science. It’s why many people go into teaching. But we wanted to help teachers recommit to it. So we also asked teachers how they implemented this approach with their students, or how they could, and what advice they would share with future teachers. That way teachers could deeply engage with the ideas, and reflect on their own practice. One teacher shared:

I never hold grudges. I try to remember that they are all the son or daughter of someone who loves them more than anything in the world. They are the light of someone’s life!

iStock image purchased by Jason Okonofua
Empathy brings us all together
Source: iStock image purchased by Jason Okonofua

Could this “empathic mindset” intervention actually help kids? Several years ago, we gave the intervention or control materials to middle school math teachers in a California school district that served mostly Latino/a students. The risk of students getting suspended over the school year dropped from 9.6% to 4.8%.

But that was with just 31 teachers. So, in a new study, we delivered the empathic-mindset exercise (or control materials) to 66 middle school teachers, who taught nearly 6,000 middle school students in a large, diverse school district in a southern state that had even higher rates of suspension.

We found the same drop in suspension rates over the school year. Moreover, the greatest drop was for Black and Hispanic students. Their risk of suspension dropped from 27% to 21%. That’s still too high—but it’s a 45% drop in the racial disparity in suspensions.

There were also reductions in suspension for students with disabilities and for kids who had a history of being suspended.

That means that, by virtue of having just one teacher complete the 40-minute empathic mindset exercise, students became less likely to get in trouble throughout the school day, in other classes, in the hallway, the cafeteria, playground, or school bus. And what was most amazing was that students took that with them into the next school year. Their rate of suspension dropped the next year too, even though their new teachers hadn’t been exposed to the intervention.

That’s progress.

For a child who feels misunderstood, disrespected, and unfairly maligned, school can be a lonely and fearsome place. Just one teacher who listens and shows that they care can make a world of difference. How can we create communities in school where it’s not just one teacher but all teachers who create that space for our children? (Find out about bringing this to your school district here.)

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