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Students’ grades, but not test scores, improved in an experiment aimed at strengthening teacher-student relationships. Credit: Photo by Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for EDUimages

One of the most vexing dilemmas for teachers is finding the best way to respond to students who misbehave. Experts argue over whether the best classroom-management approach is a consistent, strict discipline or a more forgiving response where students discuss their grievances with an adult’s guidance, a process called restorative justice. For-profit software companies sell systems to encourage teachers to award points or stars for good behavior and deduct them for misbehavior, but critics complain that the constant monitoring can feel too controlling and public shaming can be discouraging. Who can blame new teachers for feeling confused and ill-prepared to manage classroom disruptions?

Education researchers have been studying ways to prevent behavior problems from erupting in the first place, much like the field of preventive medicine aims to help people live healthier lives to minimize incidence of heart disease, cancer and diabetes. Generously doling out praise has proved to be somewhat effective in previous studies. In this column, I’m going to explain an idea that steals a page from marriage counseling: perspective taking. Its advocates advise teachers to put themselves in the shoes of their most perplexing, misbehaving students and simply imagine what they are thinking and feeling. 

It might seem far-fetched that a simple, imaginative exercise inside the mind of the person who isn’t misbehaving – the teacher – would make any difference to the classroom atmosphere. But Johns Hopkins education professor Hunter Gehlbach found that students of teachers who were briefly trained in this thought experiment reported better relationships with their teachers and earned higher grades.

“We know, unequivocally, one of the best things that anyone can do for classroom management and for teachers to be effective at their jobs across a whole array of outcomes, is to improve teacher-student relationships,” said Gehlbach. 

His theory, and hope, is that students’ need or desire to misbehave might be reduced if they feel a positive connection with the teacher at the front of the classroom. 

Gehlbach, together with two other researchers, put perspective-taking to a real world test at a charter school network in the northeastern United States. About 50 teachers, in kindergarten through ninth grade, were randomly selected to receive a single, 90-minute workshop. Another 50 teachers would eventually also go through the same training, but the staggered timing allowed the researchers to study what happened in the classrooms of the teachers who received the training first compared to classrooms of teachers who were waiting for it.

The session resembled a theater workshop. Teachers sat in pairs and were instructed to begin by thinking about their most frustrating student, with whom they often had conflicts.

“There’s some child who’s on your roster, who is only one child, but takes up like 70, 80, 90 percent of your emotional bandwidth,” said Gehlbach, a former high school history teacher. 

Certain students jumped to the front of the brain of more than one teacher; several teachers had the same exact perplexing student in mind. 

Teachers were then told to think of a particularly puzzling behavior or an incident with the student and tell her workshop partner about it.  “We invite them to really let loose, say all the things that are frustrating and maddening about the child,” said Gehlbach. 

Then, the teacher was asked to retell the story from the child’s perspective. If I were a teacher in this workshop, playing the role of the student, I might say, “Man, Ms. Barshay always picks on me. I think it’s because she doesn’t like me. Like, clearly, she’s out to get me. And I think she even got the other teacher down the hall to pick on me too, because she’s just that mean.”

“It doesn’t work for every single teacher,” Gehlbach said, “but the juxtaposition of the two perspectives gets a lot of them to internalize, ‘Oh, right. This is more of a two-way street. And I’ve gotten sort of sucked into my own perspective, a little too much.’” 

With the partner’s help, the two teachers brainstorm reasons for why the student might have acted this way. Maybe the parents put too much pressure on the kid. Maybe the parents are going through a divorce. 

“We don’t come to any sure conclusions,” said Gehlbach. “The final step is to go forth and get more information.”

A couple of months later, teachers who had taken the workshop reported more positive relationships with their students than teachers who hadn’t taken it. Students in their classrooms, similarly, reported more positive relationships with their teachers. Most importantly, students’ grades improved, a possible sign that improved teacher-student relationships were translating into more motivated students who wanted to learn and work more. However, while grades improved, math and reading test scores did not.

Another big disappointment was that the number of disciplinary incidents were no different among middle school students whose teachers had been trained compared with those who hadn’t; improved teacher-student relationships don’t necessarily translate into better student behavior. (The researchers only had discipline records for middle school students so they weren’t able to perform the same analysis for younger kids.)

The paper, “​​Social Perspective Taking: A Professional Development Induction to Improve Teacher-Student Relationships and Student Learning,” has been peer-reviewed and is slated for publication in the Journal of Educational Psychology this summer.

“It’s not bullet-proof,” said Gehlbach. “But we have some evidence that they’re probably learning more from this teacher as a result of this intervention.” Gehlbach calls his classroom experiment a “proof of concept” and hopes to see if it can be repeated in other classrooms around the country

A 90-minute session on understanding someone else’s perspective will never be a complete answer to student discipline.  And, more broadly, all of these preventive discipline ideas are not a substitute for the need to react to student disruptions in the moment. But it’s an interesting theory that appears to do no harm, and this thought experiment might be a helpful addition to the teacher’s toolbox.

This story about classroom management was written by Jill Barshay and produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

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Jill Barshay writes the weekly “Proof Points” column about education research and data, covering a range of topics from early childhood to higher education. She taught algebra to ninth-graders for...

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