Researchers at Stanford University in California have identified a classroom-based intervention that can reduce student suspensions—news that may have particularly important implications for African-American students.

According to the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, Black students are three times as likely (16 percent) to be suspended or expelled compared to White students (5 percent). The disparity manifests as early as pre-school, having dire consequences for those students’ future. Suspended students are less likely to graduate on time. They are more likely to be suspended again, to be held back, to drop out, and become mired in the school-to-prison pipeline.

“Every data point represents a life impacted and a future potentially diverted or derailed,” then-Attorney General Eric Holder said in a statement when the Education Department released its data. “This Administration is moving aggressively to disrupt the school-to-prison pipeline in order to ensure that all of our young people have equal educational opportunities.”

The Stanford researchers, who included psychology post-doctoral fellow Jason Okonofua, psychology researcher David Paunesku, and associate professor of psychology Gregory Walton, believe they may have found an answer.

Zero-tolerance policies regarding student behavior have fostered a “default punitive mindset” among many teachers, the researchers purported. However, a series of experiments found that encouraging teachers to adopt a more “empathetic mindset” to student discipline helped nurture better teacher/student relationships and cut the percentage of students who got suspended over the school year in half—from 9.6 percent to 4.8 percent.

“All kids need supportive, trusting relationships to help them grow and improve,” said Okonofua, the lead author of the paper. “Our intervention helped teachers reconnect with those values, who they really want to be as a teacher and how they want to relate to their students.”

Punitive discipline approaches can often lead to the student feeling disrespected and can lead to even worse behavior, the authors conclude.

“A focus on relationships helps humanize students,” Okonofua said. “Then you see them as not just a label but as growing people who can change, who can learn to behave more appropriately, with help.”

The study, “Brief Intervention to Encourage Empathic Discipline Cuts Suspension Rates in Half Among Adolescents,” was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.