Skip to main content Skip to secondary navigation

Slash Suspensions With Empathy

Main content start
Teacher sitting in front of classroom full of students


School suspensions set students up to enter the school-to-prison pipeline, leading to unemployment and incarceration later in life (Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology).


Taking an empathetic, rather than punitive, approach to classroom discipline reduces suspensions and improves student-teacher relationships. 

The Details

Psychologists Jason Okonofua, David Paunesku, and Gregory Walton ran a longitudinal field experiment with 31 math teachers and their 1,682 students at five ethnically diverse middle schools in California. The researchers randomly assigned teachers to one of two conditions.

In the empathic mindset condition, teachers read articles about the benefits of good student-teacher relationships. The articles explained that students’ feelings and experiences can cause them to act out, and discouraged teachers from labeling misbehaving students as “troublemakers.” Instead, they encouraged teachers to maintain good relationships with students even in the face of conflict.  Teachers then wrote about applying these ideas in their own classrooms. Two months later, teachers read another article about a teacher who respected her students and wrote about how they show their own students respect. For example, “[I] greet every student at the door with a smile every day no matter what has occurred the day before.”

In the control condition, teachers read articles about the benefits of technology-based learning, and wrote about how they could introduce a technology-based curriculum in their classrooms. Two months later, teachers read an article about a teacher who used technology in the classroom, and wrote about how they use technology to help students learn.

After one year, students in empathic mindset condition classrooms were half as likely to have been suspended (4.6%) as students in control condition classrooms (9.8%). For students with a history of suspensions, the intervention led to greater respect towards their teacher.

Why This Works

When teachers adopt a form of student discipline that encourages mutual understanding and respect, they can prevent the escalation of conflict that often leads to suspension.

When This Works Best

This intervention works well for students from different backgrounds, including those who are known to be at greater risk for suspension—male, Black, and Latino/a students.

The Original Study

Okonofua, J., Paunesku, D., & Walton, G. (2016). Brief intervention to encourage empathic discipline cuts suspension rates in half among adolescents. Proceedings of the National Academic of Sciences of the United States of America, 113(19), 5221-5226.

In The Press


Science Update

Stanford News

SF Gate


Related Topics

Criminal Justice Education Relationships


Text by Lily Zheng

Photo CC by US Department of Education