Gehlbach, along with two other researchers, put perspective taking to the real-world test in a network of charter schools in the northeastern United States. Approximately 50 teachers, from kindergarten through ninth grade, were randomly selected to receive a single 90-minute workshop. Another 50 teachers would also end up undergoing the same training, but the staggered schedule allowed the researchers to study what happened in the classrooms of the teachers who received the training first versus the classrooms of the teachers who were waiting for him.
The session was like a theater workshop. Teachers sat in pairs and were instructed to start by thinking of their most frustrating student, with whom they often had conflict.
“There’s a kid who’s on your list, who’s just a kid, but takes up 70, 80, 90 percent of your emotional bandwidth,” said Gehlbach, a former high school history teacher.
Some students jumped to the front of more than one teacher’s brain; several teachers had the exact same puzzled student in mind.
Teachers were then asked to think of a particularly confusing behavior or incident with the student and tell their workshop partner about it. “We invite them to really let go, to say all the things that are frustrating and infuriating about the child,” Gehlbach said.
Then the teacher was asked to tell the story from the child’s point of view. If I was a teacher in this workshop, playing the part of the student, I might say, “Dude, Mrs. Barshay is always picking on me. I think it’s because she doesn’t like me. Like, clearly, she wants to have me. And I think she even got the other teacher down the hall to pick on me too, because she’s just so mean.
“It doesn’t work for all teachers,” Gehlbach said, “but the juxtaposition of the two perspectives causes many of them to internalize, ‘Oh, that’s right. It’s more of a two-way street. And I kind of got sucked into my own perspective, a little too much.
With the help of the partner, the two teachers reflect on why the student may have acted in 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 firm conclusions,” Gehlbach said. “The last step is to go ahead and get more information.”
A few months later, teachers who had attended the workshop reported having more positive relationships with their students than teachers who had not attended. Similarly, students in their classes reported having more positive relationships with their teachers. More importantly, student grades improved, a possible sign that improved teacher-student relationships translated into more motivated students who wanted to learn and work harder. However, while grades improved, math and reading test scores did not improve.
Another big disappointment was that the number of disciplinary incidents was no different among middle school students whose teachers had been trained compared to those who had not; improved teacher-student relationships do not necessarily translate into better student behavior. (The researchers only had disciplinary records for middle schoolers, so they could not perform the same analysis for younger ones.)
The newspaper, “Social perspective taking: an introduction to professional development to improve teacher-student relationships and student learninghas been peer-reviewed and is expected to be published in the Journal of Educational Psychology this summer.
“It’s not bulletproof,” Gehlbach said. “But we have evidence that they probably learn 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 replicated in other classrooms across the country.
A 90-minute session on understanding someone else’s point of view will never be the complete answer to student discipline. And, more broadly, all of these ideas of preventive discipline do not replace the need to react to student disturbances in the moment. But it’s an interesting theory that doesn’t seem to hurt, and this thought experiment could be a useful addition to a teacher’s toolbox.