Empathy Training for Teachers Reduces Suspensions

A Stanford study shows that empathy training for teachers cuts suspension rates in half. In a study conducted by Okonofua et al, published in 2016, teachers were given empathy training as an alternative to traditionally accepted methods of discipline. The training largely consisted of learning to understand: the psychobiological conditions affecting student lives, student needs for a caring environment in which they feel respected, and the importance of student-teacher relationships. Stories about students were used as a teaching method. The good news is that the findings of the study suggest not only that an empathic mindset improves the quality of student-teacher relationships and reduces suspension rates by half, but also that it is never too late to make that change.

The following link to an article from the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley describes the training that was received by middle school teachers http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/teachers_can_reduce_suspensions_by_practicing_empathy.

The Greater Good article also offers three suggestions for developing an empathic mindset.  Among them, nonjudgmental language about behavior without labeling the person, and finding common connections.

How can the arts help? 
Renowned 20th century educator, Paolo Freire, asserted that shared creative experiences offered organic opportunities for reflection and meaningful dialogue, that set the stage for development of empathy, action and empowerment.  The arts offer unique opportunities for connection because they hold universal appeal and enable participation by persons of any ability, without the stigma of therapy.

The arts also offer opportunities to learn new, positive behavior through enactment, observation or imagination.  Mirror neurons in the brain enable us to learn by observation and imagination, as if we are actually enacting the behavior.  These same neurons also enable us to feel empathy towards others.

The integration of mental health practices, such as nonjudgmental language and affirming effort instead of performance, can deepen the innate empathy-building benefits of the arts.  This is what creative arts therapists do. These professionals are dually trained in mental health and the arts.  Creative arts therapists purposefully focus on process over product and build on principles such as synchrony, aesthetic distance, reflection, and self-disclosure to facilitate the experience of empathy.

What we do at UCLArts & Healing is teach community members how to use these principles to deliver socially and emotionally supportive arts experiences as a tool for prevention, without crossing the boundary of therapy.

Scroll down for a list of references on creative arts therapies, empathy and neurobiological mechanisms/mirror neurons.
Abstract of findings by Okonofua, et al:

Growing suspension rates predict major negative life outcomes, including adult incarceration and unemployment. Experiment 1 tested whether teachers (n = 39) could be encouraged to adopt an empathic rather than punitive mindset about discipline—to value students’ perspectives and sustain positive relationships while encouraging better behavior. Experiment 2 tested whether an empathic response to misbehavior would sustain students’ (n = 302) respect for teachers and motivation to behave well in class. These hypotheses were confirmed. Finally, a randomized field experiment tested a brief, online intervention to encourage teachers to adopt an empathic mindset about discipline. Evaluated at five middle schools in three districts (N teachers = 31; N students = 1,682), this intervention halved year-long student suspension rates from 9.6% to 4.8%. It also bolstered respect in the most at-risk students, previously suspended students, perceived from teachers. Teachers’ mindsets about discipline directly affect the quality of teacher–student relationships and student suspensions and, moreover, can be changed through scalable intervention.

Okonofua JA, Paunesku D, Walton GM.  Brief intervention to encourage empathic discipline cuts suspension rates in half among adolescents.Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2016;113(19):5221-6. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1523698113. Epub 2016 Apr 25.

Iacoboni M. Imitation, empathy, and mirror neurons. Annu Rev Psychol. 2009;60:653-70. doi: 10.1146/annurev.psych.60.110707.163604.

Freire P.  Education for Critical Consciousness.  New York: The Seabury Press, 1973.
Scroggs B, Bailey B, Fees B. The impact of participation in creative drama on empathy levels in emerging adulthood: A pilot study. Drama Therapy Review. 2016: 2(2):211-221.
Franklin, M.  Affect regulation, mirror neurons, and the third hand: formulating mindful empathic art interventions. Art Therapy: Journal of the American Art Therapy Association. 2010: 27(4):160-167.

Rabinowitch T-C. Musical games and empathy. Education and Health.  2012: 30(3).

Furman R. Using poetry and written exercises to teach empathy. Journal of Poetry Therapy. 2005; 18(2):103-110. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/08893670500140549

McGarry LM and Russo FA. Mirroring in dance/movement therapy: potential mechanisms behind empathy enhancement. The Arts in Psychotherapy. 2011: 38:178–184.