In November we wrote a post about the impact the mindset of a teacher can have about a student’s problem behavior. Related to this, Stanford researchers Jason Okonofua, David Paunesku and Gregory Walton recently published research demonstrating the power of teacher mindsets on student behavior.

The researchers used a brief online intervention to encourage teachers to adopt an empathic mindset about discipline. This brief training cut the suspension rates at five middle schools by 50%!

The researchers conducted a series of experiments exploring teacher mindsets about behavior. The first one examined whether a targeted message about empathic discipline would change teachers’ approach to discipline. A group of elementary teachers were assigned a brief article, one that encouraged them that “good teacher–student relationships are critical for students to learn self-control” (empathic mindset) a second group read an article encouraging them to remember “punishment is critical for teachers to take control of the classroom” (punitive mindset).

Then the researchers had the teachers review three incidents of minor problem behavior. Those that read the empathic mindset article gave responses that were less punitive and more empathic. These teachers were also less likely than the other group to label the student a troublemaker. The researchers concluded that educators “...can be encouraged to take an empathic approach to discipline and that students report that such treatment motivates better behavior.”

Next the team worked with middle school math teachers to understand the impact of these shifts. In this longitudinal randomized control trial the teachers participated in two online training modules totalling 70 minutes. As a result “students whose math teacher received the empathic-mindset intervention were half as likely to be suspended over the school year”.

The researchers highlight some important implementation elements that likely contributed greatly to the effectiveness of such a brief intervention. As we work to transfer research from experimental setting to larger contexts it is important to pay particular attention to the details. In this case the researchers highlight the importance treating the teachers receiving the intervention “as experts and agents of positive change not as recipients of remediation.” The teachers were encouraged to elaborate on material in order to allow them to take ownership of the message, connect it to their own practice and advocate for it to others.

It is exciting to see how effectively and efficiently we can shift mindsets about behavior. However it is important to remember that handing your colleagues an article about empathic discipline while highlighting spiraling suspension rates and outside pressures to address them is not likely to elicit the degree of ownership and motivation that these researchers were able to elicit.

As we discussed in November, changing how we as adults view problem behavior has important implications for how we respond to our students. It is important to remember, behavior is a form of communication and as the graphic shows if we can maintain a Growth Mindset about student behavior we can remain focused on teaching them more constructive ways to get their needs met and build their skills. As this important research confirms when teachers adopt a growth mindset about student behavior they have less need to rely on suspension.