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September 1, 2003
Vol. 61
No. 1

What Empathy Can Do

Students respond to us because we care—and because they like us.

What Empathy Can Do - thumbnail
With pursed lips and a furrowed brow, Julie strode into my second-period social studies class. She sat down, slammed her books on the desk, and said, “I hate this class!” I stood at my podium, reviewing my notes for the next period. On hearing her remark, I looked up and saw that Julie was not happy. I took a deep breath and walked slowly toward her. I squatted down next to her desk.
“Julie, you're really upset. What's wrong?” I asked.
“It's not fair. I hate this!” She paused. I waited. “We had a stupid pop quiz in math last period. I didn't have time to study last night because we had to pick my grandma up from the airport and got home late.”
I acknowledged her frustration, took another deep breath, and said,Julie, just hang in there today. Do whatever you can. It's tough to have that happen first thing in the morning.
I walked back to my podium. By now, most of the sophomore students had arrived.
As class began, I noticed that Julie sat dazed at her desk. After about 15 minutes, she opened her notebook and began to participate in class. When the bell rang, she left without a word, which wasn't unusual for her; she rarely spoke when she entered my class and never made eye contact.
The next day, Julie was the first to arrive in class once again. As she passed by my podium, she smiled at me, her eyes bright, and said exuberantly, “Good morning, Mr. Mendes.”
“Good morning, Julie,” I replied.
“So, what are we going to do today?” she asked. I gave her a thumbnail sketch. When class began, she actively participated. When class was over, she passed by me and said enthusiastically, “Have a good day, Mr. Mendes.” The next day—and every day thereafter—she greeted me, participated in class, and left with a goodbye. She raised her grade from a C to an A that semester.
What happened here? Am I suggesting that my empathetic response during a brief conversation influenced her behavior that dramatically? Dozens of variables were present in Julie's life during that time. I know from my 23 years of teaching, however, that Julie's change was not an exception, but rather the rule. Every student with whom I consciously made an effort to establish a rapport or a caring relationship demonstrated dramatic changes in behavior, effort, and performance.
Students do respond just because we care—and because they like us. Some educators want students simply to respect rather than like their teachers. But earning the respect of students is not enough. Students must perceive that we care, and even that we like them deep down, as people. As it turns out, they will work harder for someone they like than for someone they simply respect. And in our professional adult capacity, we can maintain both friendship-like qualities and our leadership role.
Having rapport means that two people are alike physiologically, emotionally, or cognitively, even if the similarity is temporary. Knowing students' interests and concerns is one sure way to build rapport. Being physically on the same level when talking with students—matching their rate of speech and their tone when it is positive—can help build rapport. Using students' names during lectures and acknowledging all responses in some way during class discussions are also part of building rapport.
What does it take to build rapport? The teacher needs a genuine desire to build a connection with students and strategies for reframing experiences so that they elicit a student's interest rather than frustration.

Nurture and Structure

Moustakas (1994) asks student teachers to draw from personal experience to create a profile of an effective relationship with a caring adult and then work to replicate this relationship with their students. Students feel special, for example, when the teacher affirms their interests and needs and makes suggestions rather than impositions. Psychologist Carl Rogers (1951) described the ideal therapeutic relationship as one in which the therapist is genuine and nonjudgmental, providing unconditional positive regard. Teachers can develop these characteristics of a good therapist to create healthy teacher-student relationships.
Developing caring relationships does not negate the need for limits and structure in the classroom. Students need both structure and nurture, and the ways in which the teacher responds to these needs in the classroom are crucial. Caring teachers succeed in managing their classrooms effectively, including maintaining discipline, solving problems, and setting expectations, limits, and rewards (Gootman, 1997). Caring classrooms are home to warm, supportive, stable relationships and to the social and ethical dimensions of learning (Lewis, Schapps, & Watson, 1996).

Emotional Intelligence

Self-awareness and self-management are crucial elements of emotional intelligence. Self-awareness entails identifying your own emotional state—knowing when you feel frustrated, for example, and why. Self-awareness includes being able to distinguish between your own feelings and those of others.
Self-management is the ability to manage your emotions and use them to move toward a desired outcome. Self-managing behavior might include taking some deep breaths or calming yourself with internal suggestions, such as “Relax” or “I can handle this.” Once you have achieved self-control, it is easier to listen and respond to others with I-messages, stating how the other person's statement is affecting you.
When we are aware and in control of our own emotions, we also need to be aware of other people's emotions so that we can make appropriate choices about how and what we communicate. Training and coaching can help develop this skill in reading between the lines.
In a study that measured the emotional intelligence of 49 high school teachers, I found that a teacher's ability to accurately identify emotions was directly related to the number of years that the teacher had taught (Mendes, 2002). This finding is consistent with other research on emotional intelligence (Mayer, Caruso, & Salovey, 2000). Classroom teachers must possess these competencies if they are to succeed with students.

Choosing Empathy

Sometimes empathy can serve multiple purposes. For example, viewing a situation empathetically can lead to a calmer internal state, which can influence the response of the teacher. In the case of Julie, I thought about how awful it is to feel that angry and almost out of control. That insight influenced my behavior. In addition, my observation allowed me to perceive Julie's upset state. This ability to read and identify emotions works together with self-management and leads to the optimal timing of responses.
In the classroom, we might be excited about a great activity for our students. But if a student is having a bad day, how do we respond? Do we perceive the student as apathetic and as having a negative attitude? Do we stick to our behavioral management plan and give the student a warning, soon to be followed by a set of consequences?
How do we discern, in the moment, what state the student is in and what course of action would be best? It's not always an easy task. The observation skills required to make these quick daily decisions are part of empathy.

The Adolescent Brain

Every time I read about neuroscientists' findings about developmental stages, I am amazed that adolescents can function in a classroom at all. The adolescent's brain is undergoing a state of reorganization, and the frontal lobe region, which is crucial in controlling impulses and making healthy decisions, has not finished developing (Giedd et al., 1999). Further, uncontrollable temper outbursts and violence may be due to mini-seizures in the temporal lobes (Amen, 1998). When making important decisions, the amygdala, an emotional trigger, gets activated more frequently in an adolescent brain than in an adult brain. Hormones magnify the intensity of moods and behavior (Amen, 1998). A bad family situation, for example, may be wreaking havoc inside the student's head.
These difficulties are not excuses for student performance and behavior, but they represent some of the factors that play into the observable behavior you see every day. When I remember these mitigating factors, I feel more empathy.

Opening the Relationship Door

Gottman describes people's attempts to make connections with others as bidding (Gottman & DeClaire, 2001). We make numerous attempts at interpersonal connections throughout the day, in all of our relationships, and people can respond to our bidding in one of three ways: toward the bid, away from it, or against it.
For example, if a person in your proximity commented on the warm weather, and you asked him to pass the newspaper, you would be moving away from response. If instead you agreed that a heat wave is in the making, you would be moving toward the attempted bid for connection. You would be making an against response if you replied, “What are you, the weather man?” Relationships that include many toward responses are more durable than those with many away and against responses. Positive responses create an emotional bank account that can absorb relational difficulties that occur along the way.
Bidding takes verbal and nonverbal forms. Depending on the relationship, a glance, a touch, or a verbal “hey” may be appropriate. When a student asks a question that is out of context and unrelated to the classroom discussion, we have choices: We can ignore it; acknowledge it and suggest another time to address it; or make a sarcastic response. Every response is either making a deposit to or a withdrawal from our relationship account. When an individual, either in a group or one-on-one, risks sharing an idea or thought with you, you have an opportunity to deposit or withdraw. Which will you choose?
We may need to practice making clear, recognizable bids to others. When we do not clearly communicate with students, they may misinterpret our intention. For example, an after-class conversation regarding a student's behavior may start out harshly and set the conversation on a downward spiral:Jessie, knock it off. I'm tired of your wisecracks in class. You're being a smart aleck, and you're going to be sorry if you don't stop.
Instead, the teacher should ask the student what's going on:You didn't seem your usual self today in class.
The student explains. The teacher uses self-control:When you said, “This class is stupid,” I became defensive and felt angry because I thought you were attacking me in front of the class. I want to know where that comment came from.
The student explains. The teacher responds:In the future, if you're angry with me or at something else, I want you to take out a piece of paper and write me a note describing your feelings and why you feel that way. Then you can share it with me later. How does that sound?
The student comments. The teacher finishes:OK, I'll talk with you more tomorrow.
This dialogue is only one of the typical, ongoing bidding scenarios we face daily. How we bid and respond to bids has a cumulative effect.
To open the relationship door, teachers need to understand their students' world. To build relationships in the classroom, teachers need to know their students, their own strengths and limitations, and how to connect with students by demonstrating genuine interest in them.

How to Build Relationships

  • Acknowledge all responses and questions.

  • Mention students' names, skills, ideas, and knowledge in your presentations—without mentioning weaknesses or confidential information.

  • Use self-disclosure when appropriate. Be a real person.

  • Use responses beginning with “I agree,” “I appreciate,” and “I respect.”

  • Ask students about their interests. Collect an information card at the beginning of the year and have students update it regularly. Pay attention to students' nonverbal responses and make adjustments as you capture their interest or hit neutral ground.

  • Build on what you hear from students by sharing stories, interests, and worries.

  • Display empathy with individuals and with classes by communicating what you think their needs or feelings might be.

  • Listen actively. Match students' expressions and conveyed moods. Paraphrase their message, when appropriate. Know your students' world and go there first to open the relationship door.


Amen, D. G. (1998). Change your brain, change your life. New York: Random House.

Giedd, J. N., Blumenthal, J., Jeffries, N. O., Castellanos, F. X., Liu, H., Zijdenbos, A., Paus, T., Evans, A. C., & Rapoport, J. L. (1999). Brain development during childhood and adolescence. Nature Neurosciences, 2(10), 861–863.

Gootman, M. (1997). The caring teacher's guide to discipline: Helping young students learn self-control, responsibility, and respect. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Gottman, J., & DeClaire, J. (2001). The relationship cure. New York: Crown Publishers.

Lewis, C., Schapps, E., & Watson, M. (1996). The caring classroom's academic edge. Educational Leadership, 54(1), 16–21.

Mayer, J., Caruso, D., & Salovey, P. (2000). Emotional intelligence meets traditional standards for an intelligence. Intelligence, 27(4), 267–298.

Mendes, E. J. (2002). The relationship between emotional intelligence and occupational burnout in secondary school teachers. Ann Arbor, MI: ProQuest Information and Learning Company.

Moustakas, C. (1994). Phenomenological research methods. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Rogers, C. (1951). Client-centered therapy: Its current practice, implications, and theory. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

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