Can a shift in mindset reduce suspensions?

New research conducted by PERTS in collaboration with Jason Okonofua and Greg Walton at Stanford University found that a brief intervention designed to increase teacher empathy:

  • Halved the number of suspensions students received over the year from 9.6% to 4.8%, and
  • Increased perceived respect from teachers for students who had previously been suspended.

The Rise of a Punitive Culture of Discipline

The past 25 years have shown a dramatic change in the culture of discipline in schools. From the adoption of zero-tolerance policies to increased funding for metal detectors and guards in schools, discipline has become more punitive and severe.

A major consequence of this punitive culture shift has been an increase in suspensions, which have been consistently linked to harmful outcomes for students such as high-school dropout, disengagement, and even an increased likelihood of incarceration. Especially unjust is the finding that suspensions are also racially biased — black students are three times more likely to receive suspensions compared to their white classmates. (For more information on why, this article from Stanford News is very helpful.)

Teachers are put in an especially difficult position in schools that have a punitive culture of discipline. Greg Walton, one of the co-authors on the paper told Stanford News,

“It is heartbreaking. 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.”

Study authors Okonofua, Walton, and Paunesku wondered if this punitive mindset could be shifted, and if so, what that would mean for students.

The Study

Thirty-one middle school math teachers across five schools and 1,682 of their students were recruited to participate in a randomized field experiment. All teachers completed two brief online sessions (70-minutes total). Teachers were randomized to either an empathetic mindset condition, or to a control condition.

Teachers in the empathetic condition were asked to read articles that:

  • Highlighted students’ sides of the story, that is, their “non-pejorative” reasons for misbehaving.
  • Emphasized that positive and respectful relationships between students and teachers can help improve both students’ feelings about school and their behavior in school.

Importantly, teachers were not encouraged to stop disciplining misbehaving students (this might actually be counter productive). Instead, the articles discussed how an empathetic and understanding relationship between a teacher and a student is important for students’ growth and success. During both sessions, teachers were also asked to reflect and to connect what they had just read to their own practice.

What did they find?

  • Students whose teacher had been randomized to the empathetic condition were half as likely to get suspended over the course of the school year. The suspension rate for these students decreased from 9.8 percent to 4.6 percent.
  • The intervention also impacted the student-teacher relationship. Students who had a history of suspension reported feeling more respected by their teacher when their teacher had been in the empathetic condition.
For a simple 70-minute intervention, that’s a pretty phenomenal impact. If every teacher in the United States took this intervention, these findings suggest that the number of suspensions could be reduced drastically from 3.45 million out of school suspensions to ~2 million suspensions per year.

What next?

These initial findings are exciting — but will need to be replicated on a larger scale before warranting any policy recommendations.

For now, it seems wise to focus on our relationships and to treat others with respect and understanding.


PERTS is an applied research center at Stanford University. We partner with schools, colleges, and other organizations to improve student motivation and achievement on a large scale.

Want to learn more? For more information about growth mindset and ideas to help students cultivate a growth mindset, check out the PERTS Mindset Kit — a set of free online resources that introduces learning mindsets, describes why they are so important, and details what educators and parents can do to help students develop them. All of the materials are based on rigorous research and expertise from teachers who have successfully developed learning mindsets in their own classrooms.

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