Accentuate the Positive

The transformative power of small encouragements and welcoming interactions

December 22, 2016
A graphic with icons of students and teacher, illustrating affirmation coming from teacher

With an unsettling year drawing to a close, many educators are increasingly aware of race: how it impacts student achievement and how it obstructs connections between people. But as we hope for a new year filled with equity and kindness in schools and beyond, research offers some encouraging insights.

Confronting racial tensions, biases, and microaggressions can have powerful effects. But schools may also benefit from widening the lens. Behavioral psychologist Todd Pittinsky has found that when white teachers encourage and model overtly welcoming interactions between students of different races, ethnicities, genders, and abilities, student achievement increases.

These “microaffirmations,” as Pittinsky calls them, can be transformative — not only for academic work, but for broader school climate and even for life outcomes.

The Power of Microaffirmations

The Research

In a recent study, Pittinsky, who teaches at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, tested whether positive attitudes of predominantly white teachers could augment the learning outcomes of mostly minority students. The results suggest that simply being welcoming and inclusive can help students not only feel comfortable in school, but also grow academically.

The study looked at more than 1,200 teachers in predominantly minority schools in 14 states across the country. Of them, 80 percent were white and the rest nearly all Latino or African American.

It examined two characteristics of welcoming interactions: what Pittinsky calls “empathic joy,” or the happiness that comes from taking the perspective of another person, and “allophilia,” a term he coined as an antonym to prejudice, meaning “love or like of the other.”

To determine teachers’ levels of empathy and allophilia, the researchers asked them to rate their agreement to statements such as “When my students celebrate things, I am happy for them” and “In general, I have positive attitudes about my students.” The researchers then measured these scores alongside assessments of the teachers’ positive engagement with their students, and against end-of-year tests measuring students’ academic growth.

The results? A chain of good effects.

Teachers’ empathic joy was associated with allophilia. Allophilia, in turn, was associated with positive engagements between students and teachers, which were then associated with greater student learning. The research suggests that these positive interactions can make students more optimistic at school and more committed to continuing their education.

Microaffirmations in the Classroom

Many teachers already recognize and promote positive interactions — microaffirmations — in their classrooms, though perhaps without fully realizing its measurable impact. In a recent Phi Delta Kappan article, Pittinsky gives several examples:

  • Nodding and making eye contact with students while they’re talking
  • Making sure to call on students of different races and genders equally
  • Referring to every student by his or her name
  • Using inclusive language — for instance, talk about “families” instead of “parents”
  • Openly giving praise for a wide-range of actions, from answering a question right to sitting still during a lesson
  • Staying enthusiastic when interacting with students

“Focusing on microaffirmations can create a virtuous cycle,” writes Pittinsky. “Over time, they can redefine the normative behavior in a classroom — or in a school — not only to avoid exclusion and insult, but also to embrace inclusion and affirmation.”

Small Behaviors — Big Impact

This study also suggests that education could benefit from a more comprehensive focus on how behaviors both big and small impact students and schools. Teachers, school leaders, and researchers could look at how a wide-range of microbehaviors impact students, and the various forms these small actions can take.

“Instead of narrowly focusing on slights and insults,” Pittinsky writes, “we should be looking at the whole spectrum of microbehaviors and finding ways to promote the ones that can help us best educate diverse K-12 students.” And there’s no reason for educators and researchers to stop with the latest findings. It’s possible, says Pittinsky, that there is more good news to be discovered about microaffirmations, and more to learn in general about how small behaviors affect student achievement.

Reimagining Empathy

Finally, this study reimagines empathy, deliberately putting it in a new light. We tend to focus on “empathic sorrow,” or the negative feelings that come along with recognizing the pain or misfortune of someone else. But Pittinsky’s work shows that empathic joy is also a powerful tool in aligning disparate groups of people and in creating feelings of success. “Interestingly,” he notes, “in other research on empathic joy, we observed an important trend: The teachers who felt the most empathic joy were the ones who were reporting lower levels of burnout.”

This new emphasis on empathic joy makes it possible for schools to use empathy not only to boost student achievement, but also to reframe lessons in history and civics on the importance of kindness and mutual understanding in fostering constructive solutions.

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Diversity and Inclusion K-12 Learning and Teaching Mind and Brain