Empathic Mindset Intervention in Teachers: Fewer Suspensions

A new study shows that inducing an empathetic mindset in teachers through a short online exercise can lead to teachers sending students out of the classroom less frequently.
In the United States, teachers frequently send students out of the classroom. Research has shown that students from ethnic minority groups and students with disabilities are more likely to experience suspensions than other students. Such suspensions predict several negative later outcomes such as poorer results, early school dropout, lower salary, drug use and a higher chance of a prison sentence. 

Jason Okonofua et al. (2022) performed an active, placebo-controlled, longitudinal field experiment (Nteachers = 66, Nstudents = 5822) to test a scalable empathic mindset intervention. 

Empathic Mindset Intervention 

In this study, the researchers used a 45- to 70-minute online exercise to refocus high school teachers on understanding and valuing students' perspectives and maintaining positive relationships even when students misbehave. 

The intervention 'empathic thinking' is a short online reading and reflection exercise. It invites teachers to reflect on the critical opportunity they have to help students grow and learn when they misbehave, including to listen to students and understand their perspective, and to maintain positive relationships in circumstances of misbehavior. 

It uses focused articles, stories and written reflection exercises to present this approach to misconduct as normative, ideal and intuitive, as general wisdom supported by research. The materials address students' social and emotional development, teachers' ability to help students develop prosocial skills, and the value of prioritizing students' perspectives, especially in times of conflict or misbehaving . 

Thus, they encourage an empathetic approach to understanding and responding to student misbehavior. Participating teachers are treated as experts in interacting with students when they misbehave and are invited to share their expertise in response to the intervention materials to support future, younger teachers. 


In pre-recorded analyses, this exercise reduced the number of suspensions, especially for students from ethnic minority groups, reducing ethnic inequality over the school year from 10.6 to 5.9 percentage points, a reduction of 45%. Significant reductions were also observed for other groups of care. 

In addition, the reductions persisted the following year when students interacted with different teachers, suggesting that empathetic treatment with even one teacher at a critical time can improve students' trajectories through the school. 


The most interesting thing about this study is that the effects found were achieved without the teachers having received any skills training. Instead, the intervention focused solely on their mindset, the glasses through which they looked at their own role and the student's perspective. 

A second interesting point is that the positive effects were not limited to the students who participated but extended to other teachers. Presumably, the behavior of teachers who participated in the study also influenced the behavior of students in a positive way, so that interactions with other teachers also became more positive.