Study Shows Suspension Rates Halved When Teachers Practice Empathy


Suspension is one of the more severe forms of school discipline in the school.  It has long been believed that black students are suspended more than their white peers. But if there was any doubt about the disparities in discipline of black children in comparison to their white peers then a recent federal report provides confirmation.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) analyzed 2013-2014 data of discipline disparities for black students. The data showed that even though black students accounted for 15.5 percent of all public school students, they represented about 39 percent of students suspended from school.  The analysis attributed the problem to implicit bias. Implicit bias is described as stereotypes or unconscious association about people.

School officials were said to be considering new approaches to school discipline to stem the high incidences of suspension among black students.  However, a research showing that empathic discipline can combat suspension rates may just be the solution to this problem.  Empathic discipline trains teachers to think like students. Indeed, when we can see things from another person’s perspective, we are less likely to be judgmental.

The 2016 research conducted by Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS) showed that empathic discipline halved suspension rates among adolescents in the schools of the teachers who participated in the research. 

The researchers conducted three experiments. Two of the tested whether teachers can be encouraged to take an empathic approach to discipline and the other tested whether encouraging an empathic mindset about discipline in teachers would reduce student suspension rates.

Selected teachers were randomized to a two cell (punitive mindset vs empathic mindset) design. They were  given three different scenarios in which a student was disruptive in class and asked to describe how they would respond to the behaviors. The result was that students of teachers who completed the empathetic mindset intervention were half as likely to be suspended over the school year. 

School suspensions have tripled in the last 40 years from 1.7 million to more than 5 million. But the sad reality is that school suspensions rob students of time spent in class. Moreover, studies show that school suspensions are predictive of negative life outcomes such as unemployment and incarceration which results in a estimated loss of $2.7 billion in costs to the state.

In light of these startling statistics and the promising evidence of emphatic discipline on suspensions, school administrators should consider implementing this strategy to reduce the suspension rates.  Also, since implicit bias was cited as the major reason for the high incidences of suspension among black students, another strategy that could be explored is to help teachers overcome their implicit bias through implicit bias training.  I am keen to hear your thoughts on this. Is it worth implementing emphatic discipline/implicit bias training or should schools scrap suspension altogether.

Bridgette Davis