Teacher to teacher: Use a daily warm-up to build empathy

Meaningful relationships are at the heart of student — and teacher — success. This is especially true of students who learn and think differently. I make time every day to strengthen those relationships, build empathy, and develop rapport with my students.

One way I do this is by incorporating a thought-provoking question into my class’s daily warm-up. This activity can be used at any grade level. In the beginning of the school year, I start by asking my high-schoolers some easy, getting-to-know-you questions, like what their favorite activities or foods are.

Later, I move to more imaginative and personal questions to learn about students’ aspirations, like “Where would you go on a dream vacation?” or “What’s your ideal job?”

As relationships develop with my students and as trust grows, I ask for their thoughts on learning struggles, mental health issues, or current events. For instance, I might ask, “What do you consider to be cyberbullying, and what should be the consequences for it?” or “Tell us what’s most difficult for you when you’re learning something new.” I adapt these questions to the age and maturity of my students.

Once or twice a week, I set aside extra time to allow the questions to develop into a bigger discussion among the group. These conversations are often when I learn the most about my students (and they help me better reach my struggling learners). I don’t consider this lost instructional time — instead I see it as an investment in my relationships with students.

When my students share their feelings and experiences with each other, they begin to see the world through their classmates’ eyes. Seeing another person’s point of view is often challenging for kids who learn and think differently, and I find that this exercise is very helpful for them. Day by day and story by story, all the kids in my class develop empathy. It’s a skill that benefits all my students — and also me as a teacher.

Here are some tips to integrate this empathy-building activity into your daily routine:

  1. Assess your own level of empathy. Before you start talking about empathy with students, think about your own ability to be empathetic and understanding. The Toronto Empathy Questionnaire (TEQ) is a quick self-assessment that allows you to reflect upon your skills.

  2. Set clear expectations. Establish the expectation that everyone shares a response to the question, including you. Create your other classroom expectations to ensure the environment is safe for all students to be honest and vulnerable.

  3. Provide multiple modes of participation. If students aren’t comfortable sharing out loud, they can write down their answer and you can share it. Some students, such as those who struggle with processing speed or working memory, may need to know the question the night before so they can think it over. Think, too, of how else students can provide responses in ways that don’t require verbal or written communication, so all students feel included and empowered to participate.

  4. Participate. When you (and other adults in the room) share your response, you are developing a reciprocal relationship and showing vulnerability. Students often perceive teachers as “separate.” There’s more than one goal of this activity. One goal is to listen intently to what your students are saying, but, for me, it’s also important to find a way to show them respect and walk beside them.

  5. Embrace teachable moments. Teachable moments will come up as students share their responses, so use those moments. For example, I recently asked my class, “What kinds of things do you do when you feel upset or anxious?” The question led one student to share that she has a lot of anxiety and can have a hard time calming down. Once she shared, other students opened up, too. Many of them said either they or a close friend experience anxiety, and they don’t always know what to do to help. I used this as an opportunity to explain the physical fight-or-flight response that adrenaline triggers in our bodies, as well as to model breathing techniques they can use to calm down.

  6. Reflect. Jot down any useful information you gather from students’ responses. Periodically, ask students their thoughts on the questions to gauge the effectiveness of this activity.

This warm-up is a success on many levels. My students tell me they enjoy getting to know other kids in the class on a personal level. They say these discussions make them more ready to learn, instead of feeling like it’s a distraction from their lessons.

They’ve also said that getting to know more about me and the aide in the class makes them feel more comfortable and able to relate to us. Perhaps most important, my students have also said it makes them more willing to seek help from me — even for problems outside of class.


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