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Suspensions remove students from the learning environment at high rates throughout the United States. Policy and theory highlight social groups that face disproportionately high suspension rates—racial-minoritized students, students with a prior suspension, and students with disabilities. We used an active placebo-controlled, longitudinal field experiment (Nteachers = 66, Nstudents = 5822) to test a scalable “empathic-mindset” intervention, a 45- to 70-min online exercise to refocus middle school teachers on understanding and valuing the perspectives of students and on sustaining positive relationships even when students misbehave. In preregistered analyses, this exercise reduced suspension rates especially for Black and Hispanic students, cutting the racial disparity over the school year from 10.6 to 5.9 percentage points, a 45% reduction. Significant reductions were also observed for other groups of concern. Moreover, reductions persisted through the next year when students interacted with different teachers, suggesting that empathic treatment with even one teacher in a critical period can improve students’ trajectories through school.

This research snapshot provides an overview of a project led by Jason Okonofua, funded through the SERN K-12 Teachers and Classrooms Research Portfolio. The study employs a randomized placebo-controlled field experiment to test whether an intervention focused on teachers' empathic-mindset – valuing students’ perspectives and prioritizing the maintenance of positive teacher-student relationships – reduces and mitigates racial disparities in suspension rates.

High rates of discipline citations predict adverse life outcomes, a harm disproportionately borne by Black and Latino boys. We hypothesized that these citations arise in part from negative cycles of interaction between students and teachers, which unfold in contexts of social stereotypes. Can targeted interventions to facilitate identity safety—a sense of belonging, inclusion, and growth—for students help? Experiment 1 combined social-belonging, values-affirmation, and growth-mindset interventions delivered in several class sessions in 2 middle schools with a large Latino population (N = 669). This treatment reduced citations among negatively stereotyped boys in 7th and 8th grades by 57% as compared with a randomized control condition. A growth-mindset only treatment was also effective. Experiment 2 tested the social-belonging intervention alone, a grade earlier, at a third school with a large Black population and more overall citations (N = 137 sixth-grade students). In 2 class sessions, students reflected on stories from previous 7th-grade students, which represented worries about belonging and relationships with teachers early in middle school as normal and as improving with time. This exercise reduced citations among Black boys through the end of high school by 65%. Suggesting improved interactions with teachers, longitudinal analyses found that the intervention prevented rises in citations involving subjective judgments (e.g., “insubordination”) within 6th and 7th grades. It also forestalled the emergence of worries about being seen stereotypically by the end of 7th grade. Identity threat can give rise to cycles of interaction that are maladaptive for both teachers and students in school; targeted exercises can interrupt these cycles to improve disciplinary outcomes over years.

There are large racial disparities in school discipline in the United States, which, for Black students, not only contribute to school failure but also can lay a path toward incarceration. Although the disparities have been well documented, the psychological mechanisms underlying them are unclear. In two experiments, we tested the hypothesis that such disparities are, in part, driven by racial stereotypes that can lead teachers to escalate their negative responses to Black students over the course of multiple interpersonal (e.g., teacher-to-student) encounters. More generally, we argue that race not only can influence how perceivers interpret a specific behavior, but also can enhance perceivers’ detection of behavioral patterns across time. Finally, we discuss the theoretical and practical benefits of employing this novel approach to stereotyping across a range of real-world settings.

Growing suspension rates predict major negative life outcomes, including adult incarceration and unemployment. The first experiment tested whether teachers 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. The second tested whether an empathic response to misbehavior would sustain students’ 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, this intervention halved year-long student suspension rates and bolstered respect 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.

Can social-psychological theory provide insight into the extreme racial disparities in school disciplinary action in the United States? Disciplinary problems carry enormous consequences for the quality of students’ experience in school, opportunities to learn, and ultimate life outcomes. This burden falls disproportionately on students of color. Integrating research on stereotyping and on stigma, we theorize that bias and apprehension about bias can build on one another in school settings in a vicious cycle that undermines teacher-student relationships over time and exacerbates inequality. This approach is more comprehensive than accounts that consider the predicaments of either teachers or students alone but not the two in tandem; it complements nonpsychological approaches; and it gives rise to novel implications for policy and intervention. It also extends prior research on bias and stigmatization to provide a model for understanding the social-psychological bases of inequality more generally.