Education is extremely important for youth development and being suspended can make children miss out on valuable lessons. Unfortunately, racial minority students and students with disabilities are more likely to be suspended and enter a negative cycle. A study published in Science Advances shows that an empathic-mindset intervention for teachers can reduce suspensions and improve students’ performance for the future.
Suspensions from school are linked to many negative outcomes for students, including poor academic performance, lack of friendships, higher dropout rates, lower earning potential, higher risk of substance use, and increased rates of incarceration. Evidence suggests that racial bias is a factor in teachers deciding who to suspend, and that teachers are more likely to view Black students as troublemakers than White students exhibiting similar behaviors. This research seeks to test an empathic-mindset intervention as a tool to help tackle this disparity.
Study author Jason A Okonofua and colleagues utilized 5,822 middle school students with a diverse racial breakdown, all of whom had a disciplinary record, for this study. Participants were from 20 public schools across 17 cities in the Southeastern United States. 66 teachers were part of this study, with 30 of them being assigned to the empathic-mindset intervention and 36 assigned to control. Teachers in the empathic-mindset intervention condition completed a brief online reading and reflection exercise that emphasizes that teachers have an opportunity to help students grow when they misbehave.
“Our intervention materials don’t focus on bias, or racial disparities in outcomes. That approach can put teachers on the defensive and backfire,” said Okonofua, an assistant professor of psychology at UC Berkeley. “Instead, we reminded teachers of why they entered the profession in the first place, which for almost everyone means helping children learn and grow, even when they struggle sometimes or act out.”
Results showed that the empathic-mindset intervention did reduce suspension rates and mitigated racial disparities in suspension. The reduction rate was greatest for Black and Hispanic students. This is especially significant considering the teachers who participated in this study were predominantly white. This suggests that teachers may find it difficult to empathize with minority students, but that the empathic-mindset intervention could successfully surmount this obstacle.
“By virtue of having one class with a teacher who participated in the intervention, a student, especially a Black or Hispanic student, was less likely to get in trouble during any other teacher’s class that entire school year and also the next school year,” Okonofua explained.
The empathic-mindset intervention had no effect on white students’ rates of suspension, showing that this intervention is only successful for dealing with students who face bias. The intervention was not significantly different for boy versus girl students. Importantly, the lessening of suspensions carried over into the next academic year, which is a promising finding for the future of these students.
“At a time when anti-bias training is not producing the improvements in outcomes we need to see, our empathy intervention was able to sideline teachers’ biases to reduce a racial disparity in suspensions in schools and do it in a sustainable way,” said Okonofua.
This study took strides into understanding how to reduce racial disparity in suspensions for middle school students. Despite this, it has its limitations. One such limitation is that this study did not assess the student beliefs about trusting teachers, which could be a direction for future research. Additionally, this study focused on middle school students, and it would be important to test such interventions with high school students as well. Future research could also follow students for longer to see the effect on their outcomes.
The study, “A scalable empathic-mindset intervention reduces group disparities in school suspensions“, was authored by Jason A. Okonofua, J. Parker Goyer, Constance A. Lindsay, Johnetta Haugabrook, and Gregory M. Walton.