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Dealing With Rowdy Students? Try Making Their Teachers More Empathetic

Changing teachers’ mindsets through short online exercises could be enough to improve student discipline in the long run, researchers report.

By Nathan Collins


(Photo: Pat Castaldo/Flickr)

It’s a natural human tendency to see misbehavior as solely the fault of the troublemaker, rather than as a reaction to one’s environment. Discipline, under that view, is a matter of changing the troublemaker, either through persuasion or force. But a new study of classroom discipline challenges that viewpoint: The most efficient and effective way to improve students’ behavior may be to boost their teachers’ empathy.

“There is increasing concern about rising discipline citations in K–12 schooling and a lack of means to reduce them,” Stanford University psychology researchers Jason Okonofua, David Pauneskua, and Gregory Walton write in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Such discipline problems are typically attributed to zero-tolerance policies, students’ lack of self control, or poor interpersonal skills on the part of teachers. In contrast, the researchers argue, people ought to be focused on teachers’ mindsets—specifically, their lack of empathy.

To demonstrate that, the psychologists asked 31 middle school math teachers, who taught a total of 1,682 students, to complete a 45-minute online training session in the fall, along with a 25-minute follow-up two months later. In one version, teachers read personal stories of students who’d been in trouble in school and were asked to respond with ways they could build more positive relationships with their students. In a control version, the training dealt with classroom technology.

People ought to be focused on teachers’ mindsets — specifically, their lack of empathy.

The results were remarkable. Over the course of the school year, only about four percent of empathy-trained math teachers’ students were suspended—roughly half that of the control group. What’s more, students who’d previously been suspended felt more respect from teachers who had received the empathy training, suggesting that the empathy sessions really did improve student-teacher relationships—even though the training materials didn’t include any specific skills or policies aimed at doing so.

“[A] brief and scalable psychological intervention can change teachers’ mindsets (empathic) and behavior (discipline) toward students which in turn can change students’ mindsets,” Okonofua writes in an email, making them more respectful and well behaved long after the training was completed.

The broader point, Okonofua writes, is that it’s possible to influence a large number of people by targeting just a few key players. In fact, it might be much more efficient to do so. “This could mean more effective solutions to other contexts like employer-employee, lawyer-client, doctor-patient, and police-civilian relationships,” he writes.