R-E-S-P-E-C-T Reduces School Suspensions

Empathy helps forge strong student-teacher relationships

For a while, my sister taught in charter schools in New York City. Her experience wasn’t good.

She related one story of elementary school students in their uniforms packed into an overheated room. Seeking relief, one solution-oriented boy took initiative and opened a window. But when the teacher entered the room and saw the open window, she got angry. “Close that window!” she barked. “I don’t care if you burn up in here.”

This was just one of my sister’s stories.

Suppose there was an intervention that could help stressed, time-pressed teachers to approach students in a way that was less punitive and more mutually respectful? Yet that helped them to set limits clearly so students would know unequivocally what was expected of them?

Although my sister’s story above doesn’t touch on suspension, you may be able to see how the teacher’s attitude wasn’t exactly respectful or empathic. Yet R-E-S-P-E-C-T is exactly what can make the difference in reducing school suspensions.

According to a study led by Stanford social psychology researcher Jason A. Okonofua, respect and empathy go a long way toward building strong relationships between teachers and students—which help reduce suspensions by helping students develop self-control.

Empathy Mindset

The intervention Okonofua developed has the goal of developing empathy in teachers. According to an article in Education Week, teachers were given training in how students’ insecurities and stress can cause them to misbehave. They also heard from students who said they felt more respected by teachers who approached them empathically.

“I don’t think the concept of empathy is something new to many teachers,” Okonofua is quoted as saying.  The intervention is “creating a way psychologically for that empathy to persist in light of stressful environments. It’s not that [empathic] teachers just stop disciplining students. When they discipline, they ask the student why he or she is misbehaving and try to address the misbehaving in a way that addresses the behavior instead of the identity of the child.”

Ripple Effect

The really hopeful news is that a little empathy and respect go a long way. Okonofua says in the article, “The most interesting and inspiring part is that we only intervened with one of the students’ teachers, and it affected their interactions with every other teacher. Just having one better relationship with a teacher at school—just one—can serve as a buffer for all the other struggles and challenges at school.”

For more about this important issue, go to Education Week.