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Classroom Management

Tapping Into Compassion When Students Push Your Buttons

Our brains are wired for knee-jerk responses—so how can you keep compassion and empathy front of mind?

August 18, 2022

At the beginning of a school year, settling in with a whole new group of students, it can be difficult to navigate heated moments. How do you deal with all-too-predictable disruptions in a way that feels proportional and controlled when there are a thousand daily decisions to make and dozens of personalities in play? When you’re overwhelmed, can you really afford to be empathetic?

But empathy and compassion, even under duress, is the better path—and overreacting can lead to unintended consequences. A solid and growing body of research suggests that students who are frequently called out for low-level misbehavior, such as not paying attention or chatting with a friend, are more likely to become disengaged and apathetic in the classroom—leading to more behavioral issues in the future. Research suggests that to keep students motivated, teachers are better off picking their battles and keeping in mind that the most effective classroom management strategies are based on building relationships.

Getting to a place of compassion—sustaining a reservoir of patience and calmness you can tap into when things get rough—doesn’t happen of its own accord. That’s especially true over the course of a long school year and in light of the fact that students are often adept at pushing buttons. According to educator Emily Terwilliger, teachers need to prepare for empathy: It’s important to practice by playing out responses to heated moments ahead of time, she maintains in a response to Edutopia on Twitter. “Think through scenarios that might happen in your classroom and how you want to respond before the start of the year,” she writes. “It will make those first redirects and interventions less intimidating.”

There are times when empathy isn’t enough. There are no excuses for serious threats of violence, and repeated disruptive behavior may call for escalations to the principal or even to suspensions. But for everyday classroom management, here are four ways to prepare yourself to approach kids with grace, curiosity, and compassion—assuming good intentions first, even when the behavior disappoints.

Look Behind the Behavior

“Our brains are wired to jump into decision-making rapidly,” educator Pernille Ripp writes. “No wonder we often switch into a rapid-fire mode when navigating a child’s seemingly poor decisions.” This knee-jerk response often backfires, Ripp argues, because it treats each incident of misbehavior as routine, rather than a moment to pause, assess what is really happening, and look for solutions. “We must come into each situation recognizing its uniqueness and its opportunity for exploration.”

For Amanda Morin, an educator and director of thought leadership at Understood.org, that means the best course of action is to short-circuit your own reflexes when you can. “Instead of reacting as if you know the reason behind a student’s behavior,” she coaches, ask questions like “Are you OK?” to indicate your concern for them personally—not for the choice they just made—and try to shift from reactive mode into “nonjudgmental investigative” mode.

“Take a breath and attempt to gather information that might lead to the deeper root of the problem,” Morin suggests. The adjustment in tactics can mean the difference between strengthening a relationship you can rely on for the rest of the year or digging a deeper hole for you both.

Learn Something About Every Student

To respond with empathy, you have to know who the student is—in a way that goes beyond their output on assessments and tasks in the classroom. Use quick, informal surveys at the beginning of the year to generate unique insights about each student.

In her former elementary and middle school classrooms, Elena Aguilar, California education coach and author, kicked off the school year by asking students to respond in writing to a quick batch of 10 questions with no agenda other than to get to know them. “I wanted to hear about their experiences in school, their perceptions of themselves as learners, what they enjoyed and struggled with, and about outside of school factors that impacted their learning,” Aguilar says. Some examples include “What is the most interesting activity you ever did in school?” and “Who do you want me to tell when you do really well in school?”

Utah high school math teacher Emma Chiappetta thinks it’s also important to ask less serious, nonacademic questions like “What is your favorite thing to do outside of school?” or “What is your favorite nickname?” And high school English teacher Allison Berryhill takes things a step further by giving her older students opportunities to “passion blog” about topics that interest them. Berryhill told Edutopia that the low-stakes activity serves as a springboard to build her students’ skills, while also giving her insights into their interests. You can read about more high school get-to-know-you activities.

In the end, what is most important—according to the responses of nearly 400 educators to a recent Edutopia social post—is to work the information you learn about students into your classroom curriculum, and into your ongoing social interactions with them. Turning a student interest into an assessment option, for example, or asking about a student’s pet, their recent birthday celebration, or their favorite sports team, shows that you care about their life, not just their grades.

You Are the Other Half of the Equation

If you want students to open up to you, you’ll want to think about risking something yourself. “Show students that it’s OK to be vulnerable,” writes educator Alex Shevrin Venet. By “modeling authenticity”—while remembering your role and professional boundaries—you can help students feel comfortable being authentic, too, Venet writes.

Even the simplest, most mundane details can do the trick, according to Margaret Zulick. Talking about your day, your family, or even your own personal hobbies and interests can signal a willingness and intention to create the sort of durable bonds that happen through rich, sincere, and authentic dialogue with students over weeks and months. “For the longest time, I thought my students would only want to hear about my life outside of school if it was exciting, like a trip or something, but some of the easiest conversations with kids have started with me just saying that I have to go do something totally mundane, like go to the grocery store, or talking about what I want for dinner,” Zulick says.

Educator Denise Torrez, meanwhile, starts class every Monday by telling students about their weekend and asking students about what they did. “It takes time but is so worth it, as you learn so much about their lives. It helps you understand them better,” she says.

A Family Affair

Reaching out to primary caregivers at the start of the school year can add another layer of important context to a teacher’s first impressions of a student.

Eighth-grade English teacher Cathleen Beachboard uses a survey she mails out to caregivers that asks them to describe their child in “a million words or less.” The tongue-in-cheek word limit gets guardians to capture key insights about their child’s attitude toward school, their motivations, the rhythms of their home life, and any academic or emotional challenges they might have.

It also pays dividends to establish a more regular back-and-forth communication between caregiver and teacher, though not all teachers will have the time to work this into their schedule. Rebecca Alber, an instructor at UCLA’s Graduate School of Education, writes that semiregular phone calls home not only increase student engagement and participation but also give her the chance to chat about the student informally,  sharing positive news about the student’s improvements as well as discussing strategies about how to address ongoing issues. Unsurprisingly, knowing the family enriches your knowledge of the child and reduces the likelihood of misunderstandings, or worse—giving up on a kid.

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