Study: Focus on Empathy, Not Punishment, Improves Discipline

(Photo: Flickr, Creative Commons)

(Photo: Flickr, Creative Commons)

Suspending a child from school may be more harmful than helpful — when a child is sent home as a punishment for misbehaving at school, it results in lost opportunities to learn, damaged relationships, and has the potential of setting up the student for future failure. A different mindset, however, could improve student behavior and lessen the need for disciplinary actions.

New research at Stanford University encouraged middle school teachers to take on an “empathetic mindset” when students were being disciplined. The study found that the number of pupils who were suspended across the academic year halved, from 9.6% to 4.8%.

The lead author of the study was Jason Okonofua, a Stanford psychology post-doctoral fellow, who joined with David Paunesku, a psychology researcher, and Gregory Walton, an associate professor of psychology. The study was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

A crucial part of teaching young people is to create positive relationships with students, said Okonofua and Walton, particularly students who are struggling. But some school environments have “zero-tolerance” policies concerning student behavior. In turn, this exposes some teachers to a “default punitive mindset.”

“It is heartbreaking,” Walton said. “Teachers are caught between two models, a punitive model that says you have to punish kids to get them to behave and an older model that goes to the heart of the profession, which says that teaching is all about building strong relationships with children, especially when they struggle.”

Walton noted that no one enters the field of education wanting to send students to the principal’s office for minor policy offenses. But teachers can get distracted when punitive policies are in effect. Negative punishments can make children feel disrespected and often lead to even worse behavior.

Okonofua added, “All kids need supportive, trusting relationships to help them grow and improve. Our intervention helped teachers reconnect with those values, who they really want to be as a teacher and how they want to relate to their students.”

Stanford News explained that the study consisted of three experiments. The first examined whether 39 teachers could be persuaded to change to an empathetic rather than a punitive state of mind where discipline was concerned. The educators were asked to write short papers on how “good teacher-student relationships are critical for students to learn self-control” or how “punishment is crucial for teachers to take control of the classroom.”

Those participants who wrote about punitive discipline were likely to express sending a student to the principal as a disciplinary choice. These teachers were also apt to have behavior-changing methods that were harsher.

When teachers were given the opportunity to to communicate their empathetic tendencies, student-teacher relationships improved. Okonofua explained that focusing on relationships helps humanize students.

The second experiment asked 302 college students to imagine themselves as middle school students who had been disruptive. They were also directed to imagine being corrected in either a punitive or empathetic manner.

The subjects responded in a much more favorable way when they were corrected with empathy. They said that their respect for the teacher was enhanced and they felt more motivated to behave well.

The third experiment in the study involved 31 math teachers and 1,682 students at five ethnically diverse middle schools in three districts California. Jill Tucker, writing for the San Francisco Chronicle, reports that the teachers were asked to be a part of two brief classes involving empathy and positive relationships with pupils.

In the first session, the teachers were invited to review stories that explained how negative feelings could make students misbehave in school. The writings also emphasized the value of understanding pupils and creating positive relationships with them even when they had misbehaved.

Futurity’s Clifton B. Parker-Stanford reports that after participants had reviewed the articles, they explained how they maintained positive relationships with their pupils when their conduct had been negative. Scientists believed that this exercise would help future educators handle discipline problems in a more positive manner.

One teacher who was part of the study wrote:

“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.”