How perspective taking can improve classroom behavior and teacher-student relationships

Gehlbach, along with two other researchers, conducted a real-world experiment at a charter school network in the northeastern United States. About 50 teachers, kindergarten through ninth grade, were randomly selected to receive a single, 90-minute workshop. Another 50 teachers would eventually undergo the same training, but the downtime allowed the researchers to study what happened in the classrooms of teachers who received the training first compared to the classrooms of teachers who were waiting.

The session is similar to a theater workshop. Teachers sat in pairs and were instructed to begin by thinking of the most frustrating student, with whom they had most frequent conflicts.

“There are kids who are on your roster, who are just a kid, but take up like 70, 80, 90 percent of your emotional bandwidth,” says Gehlbach, a former high school history teacher.

Certain students jump ahead of the brains of more than one teacher; Many teachers had the same exact delusional students in mind.

Teachers were then asked to think of a particularly confusing behavior or incident with the student and to tell his workshop partner about it. “We invite them to really let go, say all the things that are depressing and maddening about the child,” Gehlbach said.

Then, the teacher was asked to retell the story from the child’s point of view. If I were a teacher in this workshop, playing the role of a student, I might say, “Man, Mrs. Bershe always likes me. I think it’s because she doesn’t like me. Like, obviously, he’s out to get me. And I think he got the other teacher in the hall to pick on me too, because he’s just that mean.”

“It doesn’t work for every single teacher,” Gehlbach said, “but the combination of the two perspectives makes many of them internalize, ‘Oh, right. It’s more of a two-way street. And I kind of suck in my own perspective, a little bit more.’

With the help of a partner, the two teachers brainstorm reasons why the student might behave this way Maybe the parents put too much pressure on the child. Maybe the parents are going through a divorce.

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

Months later, teachers who took the workshop reported more positive relationships with their students than teachers who did not take it. Similarly, students in their classrooms reported more positive relationships with their teachers. Most importantly, student grades improved, a possible sign that improved teacher-student relationships are translating into more motivated students who want to learn and do more. However, while grades improved, math and reading test scores did not.

Another major disappointment was that the number of disciplinary incidents was not different among secondary school students whose teachers had not been trained; Better teacher-student relationships do not necessarily translate into better student behavior. (The researchers only had discipline records for middle school students so they weren’t able to do the same analysis for younger children.)

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

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

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