Managing Behavior by Tapping into Empathy

There is often a pressure on teachers to appear emotionally invincible. When students raise our blood pressure, we can’t let it show. We must always maintain composure and act calm, cool, and collected. While responding to a behavior by shouting or throwing chairs will certainly only exacerbate the problem, teachers need to shift their thinking about what they allow themselves to reveal to students about their capacity for feeling. Contrary to popular belief, teachers feel things, too. We experience just as wide a range of emotions as anyone else, and respond to frustrating behaviors as anyone else would. We are just good at hiding it. Instead of hiding it, teachers should be expressing these reactions in productive and communicative ways. Students need to know that we are human. We feel, we make mistakes, and we learn just as they do. Empathy is a powerful and underused tool when it comes to classroom management.

Right now, students (and teachers) are experiencing so many more emotions than in a typical school year. For some students, this may be manifesting as negative behavior. Regardless of how students are outwardly expressing their emotions, it’s not the time to shield our own. Students need to know that we are right there with them in their fear, frustration, sadness, and uncertainty. This is key to their Social Emotional Learning.

Teaching Empathy

While humans are born with the capacity to empathize, the display of empathy is something we have to learn. The most powerful instructional strategy for teaching empathy is modeling it. When we respond to our students’ negative feelings with empathy, our students learn to respond to others’ distress in kind.

In addition to modeling what empathy looks like, displays of empathy should also be explicitly taught and explained. Students should not only learn how to show empathy, but also why empathy is so important. 

What Is and Isn’t Okay to Share

While we want our students to realize that we are human, of course not everything will be appropriate to share with them. Students should see that, like them, we have fears, too. But we need to be careful with sharing what those fears are. There is always the possibility of inadvertently suggesting that students should be afraid of something. For example, it is likely harmless to share with students that you have a fear of heights. This is a concrete fear that is not likely to transfer to them. However, if you share that you are afraid of police officers, it is very likely that they’ll begin to wonder if they should be afraid of them, too.

It is also important that we ensure that the negative emotions we are sharing are not attributed to a specific student or group of students. While it is okay to privately share with an individual student that their actions caused certain feelings, we never want students to feel that they as individuals are causing those feelings. We want students to be able to reflect on their behaviors, not doubt their self-worth.

Breaking Down the Stigma Around Emotions

Lots of students don’t feel comfortable expressing or sharing their emotions in school. They believe that showing emotions is a sign of weakness. On the contrary, being able to express one’s emotions not only shows strength but it shows intelligence, self-awareness, and maturity. It’s important that we begin to dismantle the idea that children should refrain from showing strong emotions. It’s the only way to truly and fully process the feelings and events that cause them.

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