Empathy ≠ Weakness

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Empathy ≠ Weakness
Dr. Maryrose Caulfield here.  Not long ago I read a study performed at Stanford University about the effects of empathy on reducing student suspension rates.  What I found riveting was the personal story of one of the researchers who performed the study. His name is Jason Okonofua.
When Jason was a student at Ridgeway High School in Memphis, Tennessee, he was one of those students who was a thorn in his teachers’ sides.  He was sometimes inattentive and dozed off in class. Jason believed that his teachers viewed this as a personal affront and a sign of disrespect.  He received detention and suspension for his various “transgressions.”
Looking back, Jason recalls the time he was arrested while attending Ridgeway High.  He had been handed an inappropriate flyer by another student. When he was “caught,” the principal said he would be suspended.  Jason protested this.
“I was on the math team, honors classes, within the upper track of the school,” he recalled. “I couldn’t believe suspension was the answer.  So I told her I’d stay in that office until we came up with a different plan. That’s when she told me I’d be arrested for ‘disturbing the peace.’”  
While he only spent a few hours in juvenile detention, Jason never forgot.
Jason’s teachers did not know anything about his background and evidently did not investigate what was driving his behavior.  Jason felt under attack and humiliated, which drove him to act out.
The reality of what was behind Jason’s behavior could not have been further from his teachers’ assumptions.  Jason was distracted by the deeply disturbing realities of his life. He dragged himself to school each day after having worked at a restaurant until midnight to help his family, which struggled to stay afloat financially.  One of Jason’s friends had just been arrested. Another had accidentally shot himself.
Jason Okonofua is now an assistant professor of psychology at the University of California at Berkeley.  His guiding mission has been to understand and find interventions for the many students who share stories similar to his, especially boys of color.  His research has taken on a particular importance in light of the statistics regarding at-risk students and suspension rates.
The United States Department of Education recently released data indicating that race is a factor that affects these outcomes.  In 2015-16, schools suspended 2.7 million students out of school, which was roughly 100,000 fewer students than 2013-2014. However, young black males made up 25% of all students suspended out of school, and another 14% were young black girls, even though they accounted for only 8% of all students included.  Furthermore, fifteen percent of all students included in the 2015-2016 data were black. However, black students represented 31% of students arrested or referred to the police during the same time period, which was a 5% increase from 2013-14.
Sadly, there is also evidence that these practices can eventually inject students into the “school to prison pipeline.” This is especially true where zero-tolerance policies and teachers deciding to frequently refer difficult students for administrative punishment increases the likelihood they  will end up in the criminal justice system. Dr. Okonofua, together with Stanford psychologists Gregory M. Walton, Jennifer L. Eberhardt and Dave Paunesku, were determined to change this.
Middle school teachers who participated in this study, took part in an exercise encouraging them to adopt an “empathetic mindset” to student discipline.  This intervention resulted in suspensions being reduced by 50 percent, from 9.6 to 4.8 percent. “A focus on relationships helps humanize students,” Jason said.  “Then you see them as not just a label but as growing people who can change, who can learn to behave more appropriately, with help.” This link will take you to the full study, an important and eye-opening read for all teachers regardless of the demographics in their classroom:  
https://news.stanford.edu/2016/04/26/teacher-empathy-reduces-student-suspensions-stanford-research-shows/
Clearly school had a profound impact on Jason Okonofua.  I image this is the same for any child whose experiences are similar.  Surely as educators we can do much better. The work of teaching is extraordinarily difficult and, at times, draining.  Emotionally wrenching. Teachers experience a range of social problems in their classrooms, and are expected to ensure that all students’ top-to-bottom needs are met.  Adopting a process of humanizing students will make this work infinitely better for everyone involved.
Over my years of working with students from Kindergarten through high school, I have found a number of tried and true strategies to empathize with difficult students.
  1. Take nothing they say or do personally.  Know that even when they are acting out, they are still children – and there is likely something outside of your classroom driving their behavior.
  2. Take a deep breath and step away when situations become charged.  Confrontation only escalates the situation, and it is not about “winning or losing.”  
  3. When you do address the needs of a student who is acting out, remain calm.  Remember, when students are at their worst they actually need the most care and understanding.  No one feels good when they are out of control.
  4. Finally, do not feel a need to fix everything right away.  It is perfectly acceptable to postpone a conversation to a time when you are better able to discuss what is going on with a student beyond their behavior.  This provides an opportunity for the child to calm down as well. If in these conversations you can practice empathy, students will feel supported and inclined to work through problems with you instead of against you.
There are many great resources on this topic.  I share a few of these below, along with the link and a description of the information provided.  Until next time, I applaud your extraordinary efforts each and every day, and all the amazing work you do!
Yours in learning,
Maryrose Caulfield
Strategies to promote empathy.  http://www.drrobertbrooks.com/improving-teacher-empathy-improve-student-behavior/
Developing an empathetic school. http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/mar18/vol75/num06/The-Empathetic-School.aspx
Stanford research study outline. http://mindsetscholarsnetwork.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/05/Walking_in_their_Students_Shoes_Brief.pdf
Practical applications of the Stanford study. https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/teachers_can_reduce_suspensions_by_practicing_empathy
Jason Okonofua’s website. http://www.jokonofua.com/
How to build empathy and strengthen your school community.  https://mcc.gse.harvard.edu/files/gse-mcc/files/empathy_brief_for_schools2.pdf?m=1448053946
Cultivating empathy for parents.  https://mcc.gse.harvard.edu/parenting-resources-raising-caring-ethical-children/cultivating-empathy
Making Caring Common (MCC), a project of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, helping educators, parents and communities raise children who are caring, responsible to their communities, and committed to justice.  https://mcc.gse.harvard.edu/
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