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Study: Reduce Suspensions With Empathy

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Empathy can change lives, and a recent study proves just that. 

It's proven that students who get suspended from school are more likely to drop out and land in jail. School suspensions, which statistically impact students of color the most, can push kids out of schools and into the criminal justice system.

There are ways teachers can lessen their dependence on school suspensions, according to researchers from Stanford University. According to the researchers, when teachers approached students with an empathetic mindset, the rates of school suspensions decreased.

Stanford psychology postdoctoral fellow and study researcher Jason Okonofua said that the teachers weren't told to refrain from suspending students. Instead, teachers' mindsets were refocused and teachers did things they already knew were better.

According to the study, an empathetic mindset is one that has a good teacher-student relationship and points out that it's critical for students to learn self-control. The opposite is a punitive mindset, in which teachers aim to gain control of the classroom through punishment.

Researchers went into five diverse California middle schools and asked 31 math teachers to participate in 25- and 45-minute online exercises. Some teachers read articles that emphasized the empathetic mindset, and even that simple activity dramatically reduced the suspension rates of their students.

The study also looked at 1,682 of the teachers' students. Of those students, around 5 percent whose teachers read about empathetic mindset were suspended during the school year, and about 10 percent whose teachers did a control exercise were suspended. A teacher's behavior can change a child's year, the study shows.

Okonofua explains that students are less likely to be suspended by any teacher in any part of the school if they have even one teacher who is more empathetic towards them. Through tweaking one part of the school day, the children's entire social world and how they felt about school changed.

Jahana Hayes, Connecticut educator, wants teachers to teach empathy to their students from an early age. She explains that we spend time teaching kids to be high achievers and self-sufficient, but feels the skill they really need is to understand how to use knowledge to improve the human condition.

Hayes was recently named National Teacher of the Year.

Empathy is a quality that can take a person far in life. The ability to understand and share the feelings of another goes a long way. I am not surprised by the results of the study and think that Hayes' suggestion to teach students and teachers greater awareness of others' feelings and emotions is key to cultivating healthy relationships based on compassion—and ultimately help lead to greater success.

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The opinions expressed in Education Futures: Emerging Trends in K-12 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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