Empathy in a general sense is the ability to “sense other people’s emotions, coupled with the ability to imagine what someone else might be thinking or feeling.” That is, empathy drives us to better understand other people, at a cognitive level, or better yet, at a deeper, emotional level. It is no wonder that the teaching profession attracts many compassionate and dedicated individuals. They come prepared to listen, understand, and most of all help others find their true potential and meaning in life. They become charismatic adults that help kids become more resilient, building safe and secure relationships that enable them to grow into healthy and successful adults.

That is why having a more empathic mindset can make a real difference in someone’s life. We all have that one teacher that changed our lives. For me it was my middle school English teacher. I still remember and apply what she taught me, and most of it has nothing to do with the subject itself.

Empathic vs. punitive mindset

But what exactly is an empathic mindset? In a groundbreaking Stanford study, researchers Jason Okonofua, David Paunesku, and Gregory Walton have demonstrated through a series of three experiments that discipline problems are reduced when teachers think more emphatically about student misbehavior. On the other side of the spectrum, there is the punitive mindset, in which teachers are encouraged to punish students, oftentimes as a result of zero-tolerance policies in schools.

The research findings are more astounding considering that an empathic mindset intervention in a middle school has cut student suspensions in half in a period of one year (from 9.6 percent to 4.8 percent).

It means that teachers who empathize with students will take less drastic disciplinary approaches, but also that student-teacher relationships are improved, and students respond more positively when teachers have an empathic mindset. In turn, teachers find it easier to manage their class.

It also makes more sense since punishment is known to reduce an unwanted behavior for a short amount of time, especially if students perceive the punishment as being unfair. For example, if you punish a student for passing notes in your class today, it is not a guarantee that they will refrain from doing the same tomorrow, or during their next class. Unfortunately, many academic institutions still adopt a zero-tolerance perspective, promoting punitive actions as a quick way to instill discipline and order. Teacher-student relationships suffer as a consequence, and most of the time being part of the system means that you don’t realize that the system does not really work.

Positive personal interaction supports high quality levels of engagement in learning and higher quality behaviour in valuing, sharing relationships. This has significant implications for both face-to-face and computer-based learning.

Bearing these words in mind, belonging to Bridget Cooper, here are some ways in which teachers can adopt a more empathic mindset, with a simple, yet effective, mindset exercise at the end:

Think about yourself at first

It is very difficult to connect with others if you are not very aware of your own behavior. While teacher training is extremely helpful, you may not be aware of some of your own approaches in how you manage your class once you settle in a routine. For example, it is worth noting what triggers certain emotions at work, such as frustration or even anger. Then, it is also useful to recognize feelings of self doubt, your reactions to stress, and even whether you are going through burnout. Usually, when we do not address these problems, they end up piling up and they might affect our ability to interact with others. Asking for help from peers or a supervisor is a good strategy that will help teachers cope better in the long run.

Let them see you as you

Let yourself be seen. This is way easier said than done. However, in sharing our shortcomings as well as our successes, we are being more authentic. An educator that holds back cannot demand full openness from their students. You can admit when you are not having the best day, or when you got a fact wrong. You can be open about that one time you struggled with a concept in school, or got a bad grade. Students do not need to see perfection, they need someone they can relate to and someone that they can trust.

Show students how to be more empathetic

Many teachers choose their profession after being inspired by an educator themselves — someone that has had a great impact on their life. For example, I will never forget my Math teacher, who had a tough love approach to teaching, but made time after her normal teaching schedule to tutor students who were struggling, because “everyone deserves a second, third, and fourth chance”. Students will tend to look up to teachers that show more empathy towards them and in turn, show more kindness towards one another and emulate positive behaviors.

Separate behavior from the student

This is nothing innovative, yet we tend to fall into the trap of identifying students according to some behaviors that they exhibit in class. There is the good student and the problem student. The problem with labels (aside from the fact that they belong on jars, not on students) is that students will internalize and identify with the said label. This can in turn become a self fulfilling prophecy, not to mention that it will also alter your own perceptions and expectations of your students. Other negative aspects are lower confidence in themselves and lower confidence in their academic skills. Instead, one of the building blocks of a good relationship with students is separating what they do vs. who they are as a person.

Exercise: Change the narrative, change the classroom

This will not happen overnight so some patience is needed. The good thing is that you can do it constantly. Think of it as an experiment.

I was an instructor for a series of classes, teaching soft skills to High School students as part of a non formal education Summer program. To put it bluntly, my classroom management skills were not so great. I was in my early twenties, so many rookie mistakes were made. I was paying more attention to students which held similar views to mine. I ignored disruptive students, or asked them to leave when “it got too much”. I made them put their smartphones in a box, box went under my desk.

But mostly, I noticed that my attitude towards them was pretty dismissive and in turn, they were not actually learning much. It was not easy to admit my own shortcomings but alas, I did the following exercise with the help of a fellow instructor:

Beliefs What do I do when this happens? Re-thinking through an empathic mindset What do I do when this happens again?
Students that check out mentally during the session are not serious about their studies. Ignore them, or purposefully ask them a question to prove that they should be paying attention to me. It is hard to pay attention for even one hour. Maybe the subject is too easy or too difficult. Maybe they have not had breakfast today. I ask them what is the matter. Could I explain this differently? I can also ask the student individually afterwards if there is something going on (maybe they have a personal problem to deal with). I will also try to engage them in the discussion by using a gentler tone next time.
A student is disruptive and fidgety. They are bothering others. It is beyond disrespectful! I ask them to be quiet. If they do it again, I ask them to leave and come back when they are ready to take this seriously. They have a reason for being disruptive, be it boredom or anxiety, maybe trouble at home. I will not take it personally next time. If the student is particularly loud, a good technique is to seat them at the back of the class where they can see everyone. I need to be extra careful in my approach and ask them what is the matter first before taking other actions.

Needless to say, this table will look different for each teacher and each classroom. I had my own biases to confront, mainly that High School students were impossible to deal with… but in the end working my way out of that mindset has improved my ability to connect with them. I noticed a higher engagement rate and fewer disruptions by switching to more understanding attitude.

Stay tuned for more!

Empathy can start from the bottom-up, from teachers to students to the entire community. Empathy can also be fostered if the school culture changes to accommodate a kinder approach to discipline. Indeed, school leaders and their commitment to helping and understanding students can make a world of difference. That is why this is just the first part of a series exploring how empathy can change our schools. Next time, we will have a look at how it can also improve the learning process, and other benefits for students.

Stay in the loop! We’ll keep you updated with the most valuable EdTech tips and resources. Subscribe and never miss out!