Imagine this scenario: You’re eating lunch in the teachers’ lounge, and the cafeteria monitor comes to find you. One of your students, Shaun, is pushing other students to get to the front of the line to go outside for recess. This is the third day in a row the monitor has interrupted your lunch for the same reason.
Frustrated, you rush down the hall. You tell Shaun that if he can’t wait his turn calmly, he’ll have to be the last one in line from now on. Your reaction is understandable — what you see is a student who is continuing to shove other kids out of his way even after he’s been told not to.
Student behavior and empathy
What you see your students do and hear them say influences your perception of them. With a classroom full of students, it’s natural to react to students based on those outward behaviors — but what's happening below the surface?
It’s human nature to focus on how a student’s negative behavior takes time away from teaching and affects your classroom. When you are charged with managing behavior in addition to teaching content, it’s easy to overlook what’s happening with the student and focus on what’s happening to you as the teacher.
Showing empathy can help you change that dynamic, so you not only acknowledge and consider what you see and feel, but also what you don’t see. Those unseen challenges could include learning and thinking differences. But other struggles, such as trauma or hunger, may also be involved.
What empathy is
Empathy is a way of connecting with other people that shows you understand that they’re experiencing something meaningful — even though you may not understand exactly how it feels for them. In other words, empathy is about finding a way to connect and to be able to say, “I want to understand how this feels to you and let you know that you’re not alone.”
Empathy is a powerful tool that can help you better understand what’s driving your students’ behavior and find strategies to help. It can also help you connect and work through difficult moments together.
What empathy isn’t
Keep in mind that empathy isn’t the same as sympathy. When you are sympathetic, you may feel sorry for students. Even though you may care deeply for them, sympathy may lead you to look down on students instead of trying to understand or connect with them.
Being empathetic does not mean lowering your expectations. You can validate and have empathy for students, while at the same time holding them to high standards. In moments when you connect with students empathetically, you can reinforce your belief in their ability to succeed.
Empathy may not be about feeling sorry, but it is about feelings. Give yourself permission to acknowledge your own emotions. It’s natural to be frustrated or upset. What’s going on with your students has an emotional impact on you too. You may need to take a minute to regroup before you talk to the student.
When you’re ready and able to be empathetic in stressful moments, it shows that you’re trying to get past your own feelings. You’re modeling for students what it looks like to practice self-control and to tune into other people’s feelings.
The four parts of empathy
Researchers have identified four main attributes of what it means to be empathetic. Integrating these practices into your teaching can show students that you see what they’re going through as more than just a problem to fix.
- Perspective taking. When you take a different perspective, you put aside your own feelings and reactions to see the situation through your students’ eyes. You may start by asking yourself: Do I believe my students are doing the very best they can?
- Putting aside judgment. It’s easy to jump to and express conclusions about the situation based on what you see. But it’s important to step back and consider: What more do I need to learn and understand about the situation?
- Trying to understand the student’s feelings. If you can, tap into your own experiences to find a way to understand what the student is feeling or to remember a time when you felt something similar. Be careful not to overdo it, however. Each person’s experiences are their own, so saying “I know how you feel” can come across as disingenuous. If you’re struggling, ask yourself: What more do I need to learn and understand about how other people are reacting to or perceiving the situation?
- Communicate that you understand. Talk to your students without using “fix it” phrases like “What you need to do is….” Instead, try reflective phrases like, “It sounds like you…” or “I hear that you….” As teachers, our instinct is often to contain the situation and find a quick fix. That can help in the short term. But it won’t build long-term trust with students. And it won’t help students learn to solve problems with you and eventually try to solve issues on their own. This step requires you to do some self-reflection: What more do I need to learn and understand about how I react in the moment? What more do I need to learn about how I communicate to others that I hear them, even though I’m experiencing my own emotions?
Responding to students with empathy
It’s one thing to understand the importance and components of empathy. It’s another thing to respond with empathy, especially in stressful moments.
Think back to the lunchroom situation with Shaun. Imagine Shaun’s reaction to your frustration. Instead of being rude or defiant as you expected, he bursts into hiccuping tears. He wasn’t trying to be rude or pushy. Shaun’s sensory processing challenges make being in the middle of the loud cafeteria tough for him. He feels crowded and a little panicky. He knows he’ll feel better when he can get outside to escape the noise.
When he heard what you said, in the way you said it, he felt something you probably didn’t intend to convey: You don’t understand him.
When you speak without empathy, you might say things like:
- “If you’re going to keep pushing others, you’ll be last in line from now on!”
This reaction doesn’t acknowledge the feelings or challenges that may be driving the behavior. And when Shaun hears that, he’s not likely to be motivated to change.
Instead, imagine how Shaun might react if you were to say this:
- “I know we’ve talked about pushing other kids out of the way. I also know you know it’s not the best way to handle what’s bothering you. Is there more that I need to understand so I can help you?
Just that small change in approach can make a big difference in what a student hears and feels, and how willing the child is to keep working on things that are difficult. That, in turn, is going to impact Shaun’s ability to be available to learn in your classroom. Students who know the teacher understands them and their challenges are more available learners.
Ways to show empathy for students who learn and think differently
Feeling understood and supported is especially important for students who learn and think differently. It helps them stay motivated, increases self-awareness, and encourages them to advocate for themselves. These self-advocacy and self-determination skills lead to better outcomes in employment and post-school life, according to research.
That said, many of these students may not feel they’re understood because other adults have reacted to their behaviors or challenges without empathy in the past. Tuning into their emotions shows that you understand and accept all students.
Getting started in your classroom
- Allow for time in your classroom routine to use this teacher’s rapport-building warm-up to help create a more empathetic environment.
- Watch a video exploring the mindset of compassionate curiosity and how you can use it in your classroom.
About the author
About the author
Amanda Morin is the author of “The Everything Parent’s Guide to Special Education” and the former director of thought leadership at Understood. As an expert and writer, she helped build Understood from its earliest days.
Rayma Griffin, MA, MEd has spent her 40-year career advocating for the rights of children with learning and thinking differences, both in the classroom and as an educator.