How to show empathy to your students with compassionate curiosity

Compassionate curiosity is a practice from trauma-informed teaching that asks teachers to act as non-judgmental investigators so they can better understand students. It’s an important first step in learning to respond to your students with empathy. Teacher Kyle Redford calls compassionate curiosity a “love plan” for the students in her classroom.

Imagine that a student gives you a snappy response. Instead of reacting as if you know the reason behind a student’s behavior, you pause to take a breath. You regroup. And then you ask the student genuine questions. You ask, “Is something bothering you?” Then you listen with intent to the student’s response. That’s what it means to be compassionately curious.

This approach can make even the most confident teacher feel vulnerable. You may be used to jumping in and finding a solution before knowing the cause of the problem. However, being compassionately curious shows students that you’re trying to better connect with them and their experiences. 

How to practice compassionate curiosity

Compassionate curiosity isn’t something that comes naturally. It takes intention and practice. It requires you to:

  • Acknowledge there’s a lot you don’t know. Instead of assuming students haven’t turned in homework because they just don’t care, assume you don’t know what’s going on.

  • Ask caring questions. Depending on the situation, ask questions like, “Are you feeling OK today? Do you want to talk? How was your night?” Maybe you know that a student had a family commitment that ran late the night before. This may prompt you to provide extended time for homework completion. With more information, you can develop tailored solutions and strategies.

  • Listen and observe. Often, a student’s need to be heard is more important than the need to have a problem solved. Students may not always answer questions clearly. But you can gather clues by listening with full attention and observing nonverbal cues. Listening can sometimes be a solution in itself.

  • Imagine the student’s experience. Students who think and learn differently are often asked to spend their days at school doing things that are very difficult for them. The same goes for English language learners who are trying to keep up in a classroom where the language barrier is a struggle. Try to imagine the feelings that certain experiences or tasks might evoke and what behaviors might reflect those feelings.

  • Believe that every student wants to be known. Investing the time and effort in getting to know who your students truly are provides them with an incentive to invest in being their best selves. When students know you’ll react with curiosity instead of punishment, they’re more likely to contribute positively to your classroom community.

  • Be patient. At first, you may see an increase in inappropriate behavior. Some students may feel the need to test the boundaries of your compassion. Other students may feel more comfortable showing you the anxiety or other feelings they’ve previously kept inside. While this can be challenging, you can work with those students to reduce their inappropriate behavior, drawing on the relationship you’ve built and a better understanding of what’s going to help each student.

Practicing compassionate curiosity acknowledges students as whole people and lets them know you want to collaborate to understand and solve problems. By responding with empathy, you can unlock the potential in every student, even in stressful moments.


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