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Promoting Empathy in My Classroom Improved My Students' Behavior

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In the age of standards-driven instruction, we sometimes forget that we need to teach and promote empathy as well. When we do so in our classrooms, it can transform student behavior.

Empathy is a Skill

Growing up, I thought empathy was something that you were born with--that human beings just understood what others were feeling automatically. It turns out, this may not be true at all. What I learned from dealing with behavior problems in my classroom is that empathy is more of a skill. A skill that I wasn't emphasizing in the age of Common Core in the classroom. Once I started promoting empathy in my classroom, my student's behavior changed for the better.

Promoting Empathy Starts with the Teacher

Our students, in many ways, are mirrors of their teachers. From youth to adulthood, students will emulate our behavior. If you sit at your desk sending text messages, you are more likely to find students engaging in the same behavior in your classroom. It happens because, as educators, we set the standard for acceptable and unacceptable behavior in the classroom.

So when my students were acting out in class in various ways, some of that was a mirror on how I handled discipline in my classroom. Part of this was because I was going through my day completely unaware of the lack of empathy in how I handled behavioral issues in my classroom. The harsh truth is that promoting empathy in the classroom starts with the teacher.

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When disruptions happen in the classroom, your impulse may be to pass judgment and hand out detention. For example, every year there would be two female students in my class who would regularly disrupt instruction by arguing. In an act of frustration, I would shove them off to the assistant principal's office or an in-school detention room. I just wanted to get back to the business of teaching and let someone else handle it. Using this strategy never improved my classroom management or improved my teaching.

After years of beating my head against a wall wondering why my students couldn't get along, or why their classroom behavior only got worse, I realized I wasn't listening to my students. I had to adopt an empathetic mindset when I dealt with them if I expected anything to change.

Using Active Listening

To promote empathy, I had train myself to model empathy to my students. So let's go back for a moment to the two students who disrupted class arguing. To model empathy, I had to take time to stop and listen. So I took each student aside for a moment and listened to their side of the story. In middle school, it turned out, one student believed that the other was spreading rumors about her. After conversing with the students for a few minutes in class, the situation dissipated and we moved on.

Conversations improved the behavior of these two young ladies because I modeled active listening. When each student explained to me their side of the story, I used eye contact and body language to show that I was listening to what they were saying. Rather than interrupt or cut them off, I would occasionally paraphrase what they have said to make it clear to them I was listening. When I had the girls talk to each other, I prompted them to engage in the same behaviors. It took some time, but their arguments in class diminished because they learned to listen to each other with empathy.

Using Literature to Promote Empathy

As teachers, opportunities to promote empathy don't happen as often as we would like them to. So we have to construct those opportunities in our lessons. One strategy I used to promote empathy was finding stories or articles to share in class that would help students look at a situation from different perspectives. From homelessness to disabilities, there are books for every age group you can bring into the classroom.

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Once you have picked a work to use in the classroom, think about how you can engage students in discussing the different perspectives in the story. With younger children, you might ask them probing questions along the way such as, 'How would you feel if...,' to get them thinking as if they were in the character's shoes. Sometimes I had students journal using different prompts as we read novels and then created structured opportunities for us to discuss as a class. You can use role play and have students pretend to be the characters in different situations to help them learn to think about situations from an empathetic mindset.

The Power of Empathy in the Classroom

I learned in my classroom how promoting empathy can change students' behaviors for the better. The latest research also supports the power of promoting empathy. In 2016, a Stanford University study looked at the impact of middle school teachers taking on an 'empathetic mindset' in dealing with discipline matters. The result showed that, in middle schools with an 'empathetic mindset' towards discipline, suspensions dropped by half from 9.6% to 4.8% compared to schools with a punitive mindset. Empathy can be a powerful tool in the classroom when we take steps to actively promote it among students.

By Rachel Tustin
November 2017
teachers teacher professional development

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