In stressful moments, it’s not always easy to find the right words to say to a student. Whether you’re frustrated, upset, or just plain busy, it can be difficult to put your own feelings aside or to find time to listen to students’ concerns.
There is no one right empathetic thing to say. Often, it’s less about what you say and more about how you listen and ask for information. Below are some empathetic sentence starters you can use for different purposes.
Download a printable one-page reference sheet of these sentence starters.
Gather more information
When students come to you with a concern or a complaint, it can be tempting to think you know the whole story. You might try to solve the problem right away. But in doing so, you risk rushing to conclusions without having all the information you need to address students’ concerns. That can leave them feeling frustrated and misunderstood.
This can be particularly challenging for some students — including younger students, English language learners, and students who learn and think differently — who may not be able to easily tell you everything you need to know about a situation.
Before jumping into fix-it mode, get more information in an open-ended way that doesn’t make assumptions or impose your viewpoint. Use sentence starters like:
- Would/could you tell me a little more?
- Can you tell me what you need right now?
- Is there anything else you’d like to share?
- Would you like my help in figuring this out?
Hear how one teacher used the sentence starters to gather information and positively change his relationship with a student.
Clarify your understanding
Once students start talking more freely, make sure you’re truly hearing what they tell you. Instead of saying, “You’re angry because your friends left you out,” reflect back what you think you’re hearing. That provides students the opportunity to correct you if you’re not quite understanding what they want you to know.
A word of caution: Don’t simply repeat a student’s own words. It can sound to them as though you’re only hearing the words and not trying to glean meaning. Instead, paraphrase your understanding using one of these phrases:
- Let me see if I have this right….
- I want to make sure I understand what you’re telling me. What I’m hearing is….
- What I hear you saying is…. Is that right?
Show you’re listening and paying attention to other cues
Conveying a message can be difficult for some students, particularly in emotional or stressful situations. For instance, students who find social interactions challenging may also have a hard time expressing their emotions out loud (even if their body language shows it). Other students may not have the emotional vocabulary to describe their feelings.
You can model how to express and name emotions. As you do so, you’ll also show students that you’re paying attention to both what their words and their body language are saying. The following sentence starters can facilitate that process:
- It sounds to me like this might feel….
- I can sense that you are feeling [emotion]….
- I can hear how [emotion] you are feeling.
- Your face is telling me that….
- I can hear in your voice that….
Affirming students’ feelings
Feelings aren’t right or wrong. You may think a certain reaction isn’t appropriate to a situation, but that reaction is a result of how the student feels. Acknowledge the vulnerability it takes for students to share those feelings with you.
Affirm that it’s OK to feel as they do. Even if you feel a student’s reaction isn’t entirely appropriate, you can affirm their feelings by saying things like:
- Thank you for sharing this with me.
- I understand you feel that way.
- That sounds like an [adjective] experience.
- I hear you.
- I’m not sure what to say right now, but I’m here to listen.
Empathetic phrases like these can encourage in-depth conversations — or can help to quickly check in with a student so you can carry on with class. Plus, when you use these phrases, you’ll model for students how they can have empathetic conversations with their peers.