Developing your pupils’ empathy can be an effective way to improve their behaviour. Dave Stott discusses, offering practical tips

It is always a good idea to ensure that we have an accurate and consistent understanding of a theme before trying to deliver any advice, strategies or changes to current practice. There are certainly clear links between effective behaviour management, improvement in observed behaviour and an approach that has empathy firmly at the centre.

The ability to empathise allows you to:

  • demonstrate an understanding of (and respect for) another person’s point of view
  • appreciate how that other person may be feeling
  • realise that all people have individual feelings, and recognise that their feelings may be the result of differing experiences
  • understand that these feelings may be displayed in different ways or in different circumstances
  • know that your own actions may affect other people in both positive and negative ways
  • be able to read the verbal and non-verbal signs of a person, and to be able to alter your own approach and behaviour in direct response to those signs.

Put into practical terms within the classroom, in order for your behaviour management strategies to be successful and for individuals or groups of pupils to be able to improve their behaviour, it is vital that you consider:

  • How are you feeling?
  • What has prompted those feelings?
  • How do you think you appear to others? (Consider body language, verbal language, eye contact.)
  • How is the pupil feeling?
  • What clues can you detect to gauge how he or she is feeling? (Consider body language, verbal language, eye contact.)
  • What can you do to ensure appropriate behaviour?
  • What can you expect the pupil to do to modify his or her behaviour?

The above list represents a high level of skill in the interpretation of early warning signs and self-management, and the employment of an extensive range of behaviour strategies.

The intention of this type of approach is one of understanding, and using proactive and reactive behaviour rather than being patronising and undermining.

Practical Tips

The skills of self-awareness, managing feelings and motivation (previously addressed in the last three e-zines), together with this week’s skill of empathy, all relate to the context of being with other people. The basis of empathy is that of listening, being aware of and able to respond to the messages that others are sending us.

Consider what activities you provide in your classroom for pupils to develop their empathy skills. Activities will probably include some or all of the following:

  • group work or team work
  • coaching skills
  • buddying
  • circle-time activities, including active listening, taking turns and positive language
  • role-play

All of the above activities will allow pupils to practice their skills in a safe and controlled environment, and will take account of the complexities of behaviour. Body posture and movement, rates of breathing, eye contact (including intensity and lack thereof), together with changes in voice pitch, volume and intonation will all vary depending on the pupil.

Your own style of approach and verbal communication can also add to their development. Teachers who use a ‘blaming approach’ (such as, ‘You need to speed up! You’re late again and wasting everyone’s time!’) when talking to pupils or managing behaviour, will find it does not tend to be effective.

This style of reprimand merely places the blame on the pupil for his or her observed behaviour; the teacher is taking no account of the current situation or the pupil’s own interpretation of the problem (if he or she even perceives it as a problem). The teacher is also missing an opportunity to use a verbal response that reinforces the need to consider others in your behaviour. A more effective and certainly more empathetic response might be:

‘John (use a questioning style of address rather than a annoyed, frustrated tone of voice), I know you’re having problems, but when you’re late arriving to class, I find it really difficult to start on time, and I feel like you don’t care.’

Your style of address should demonstrate to the student that you are taking account of his or her situation, and that you are sympathetic, but nevertheless you need John to arrive on time. You are also helping John to understand how his behaviour is affecting you.

Remember, however, it is not sufficient to simply say the words. In just the same way that you are attempting to interpret John’s feelings, so he will be doing exactly the same to you! Concern and sincerity should be obvious in your delivery of that constructive message.

Finally, as a group activity, try asking all the members of the group to write their names on a sheet of paper and then ask everyone to write something positive about a named person. The comments must be positive, and the results can be dramatic as individual pupils discover how their peers see them in the classroom.

This e-bulletin issue was first published in March 2009

About the author: Dave Stott has nearly 30 years’ teaching experience including seven years as a headteacher. He has worked in mainstream and special schools and Local Authority Behaviour Support Services, and is now a writer, consultant and trainer.