Study finds reduced suspension rates using empathetic discipline program and MTSS

Removing students from the classroom through exclusionary discipline practices like suspensions and expulsions has been proven to negatively impact academic achievement and disproportionately affect specific groups including students of color, low-income children, LGBTQ youth, males and students with disabilities.

Those trends proved true on the 2022 California School Dashboard, which found that suspensions rates for foster youth were “very high” and rates for African American, American Indian and homeless students, as well as students with disabilities, was “high.”

Research has found that bias plays into these trends, but a recent report from the UCLA Center for the Transformation of Schools says that while “we have learned a great deal about bias and how it may contribute to these inequities, recent analyses show a sobering lack of effectiveness in controlling these biases or to ‘de-bias’ individuals.”

The report explores the effects of an empathetic discipline program — an intervention for teachers that is designed to mitigate the consequences of bias on their students’ education outcomes — being implemented through Multi-Tiered System of Supports (MTSS) networks in a large and diverse school district. Researchers found that the program meaningfully reduced yearlong suspension rates and mitigated racial disparities within them.

The study

The empathetic discipline program was implemented in 20 schools across 17 cities in one of the 20 largest school districts in the United States through the district’s MTSS. The MTSS specialists served as school facilitators responsible for introducing the program and monitoring participation at each school. Half of each school’s math teachers were trained online for the intervention, while the other half of participating teachers were assigned materials that focused on how technology use could improve student engagement.

Compared to the control group focused on technology and student engagement, the empathic discipline program reduced yearlong suspension rates by 2.4 percentage points and mitigated racial disparities in suspensions by 45 percent, or a reduction of 5.6 percentage points.

“For policy, these findings suggest that MTSS can effectively implement an empathic discipline program across many schools and by doing so can reduce discipline problems for all students and mitigate racial disparities in those suspension rates,” the report concludes. “Further, the findings from the comparison (control) groups indicate that the default mindset is a punitive one that contributes to high rates of exclusionary discipline (i.e., suspensions that remove students from the learning environment).”

Recommendations include:

  • Put systems and structures in place — ideally through MTSS — to provide teachers an opportunity to get to know and build meaningful relationships with students.
  • Develop more scalable mindset interventions like empathic discipline that can be implemented through typical professional development schedules.
  • Regularly analyze suspension rates to determine triumphs and challenges with implementation programs to mitigate discipline problems and disparities.
  • Determine contextual factors that provide affordances for an empathic discipline to be effective (e.g., support from district and school leaders).
  • Consider methods to strategically integrate mindset approaches like empathic discipline with structural approaches like restorative practices and skill-building approaches like cultural competency to mitigate discipline problems and to sustain the mitigation.