Responding to Misbehavior of Students with Empathy

Andrew C. McMillan
Andrew C. McMillan
High school principal; Ed.D. in Educational Administration
Teacher sitting next to and comforting a young student.

In a perfect world, students in today’s educational settings would thrive academically, socially, emotionally, and mentally without facing any setbacks, hurdles, or challenges. However, society today is not perfect, nor is the educational system. Students in our classrooms face a myriad of challenges that manifest themselves in our daily interactions with them. Embracing the challenges, and working with students in an empathetic manner can help to alleviate potential problems that are often labeled as student misbehavior.

Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. Practicing empathy allows us as educators to put ourselves in the position of another, aiming to understand their feelings and perspectives, and to use that understanding to guide our own actions.

Why do Some Students Misbehave?

When thinking about why students misbehave in class, a number of reasons come to mind. For the majority of students, the behavior labeled as disruptive is generally a cry for help or attention. This can be particularly true in the lower levels, middle school and below. Students crave attention and focus due to a potential lack of interaction with others or at home.

For others, like high school students, the misbehavior can be due to frustration, maybe with the academic content, or frustrations with challenges in life as older students, like relationships, jobs, stressors from plans after high school, and others.

Another example of why students misbehave could be boredom. Students are inundated with our rapid-reaction society, with technology and media accessible at their fingertips and the need for instant gratification. Ultimately, misbehavior can take on many forms and fashions, and as teachers, we must get to the root of the issue if we are to have any chance in rectifying the behavior.

Classroom Misbehavior Scenarios

Ask any teacher to give you an example of a student misbehaving in class, and you will find yourself faced with a dizzying array of scenarios. Primary and elementary teachers will tell you about students who have a desire for power, throwing tantrums and very public displays of bad attitude or disrespect. Ask a middle or high school teacher and they will tell stories of non-compliance, where students may not be outwardly vocal, but simply “won’t do.”

Although these are age-specific examples, students across all levels of the educational spectrum can manifest bad behaviors in multiple ways. Most teachers illustrate a common scenario. Student A comes into class already ill or upset with a situation that has happened elsewhere—home, school bus, hallway, etc, and now carries that incident with them throughout the day.

Unbeknownst to the teacher, this incident will now unfortunately impact their class. This typically presents itself in the first few minutes of the class, as students begin working on their pre-lesson, warm-up, bellringer, etc. Student A now has two paths to misbehave. The first path is to emotionally shut down and be non-compliant, leading to a power struggle between student and teacher, with a captive audience of others, anxiously awaiting who will win.

The second path involves a more vocal and demonstrative outburst, particularly if the teacher addresses Student A verbally and in front of their peers. Now, a more aggressive scene plays out that could potentially involve more administrative and/or disciplinary actions, resulting in more severe consequences for Student A.

Why Should Teachers Use Empathy to Respond?

In a more traditional method of student discipline, student suspension is typically harmful for students, as it denies them the opportunity to learn, damages relationships, and puts them on a negative path of destructive habits. Additionally, suspension could result in students being placed back in the environment that led to the misbehavior in the first place. Because of this, teachers utilizing a more empathetic approach to student behavior can result in positive consequences for students.

In its most basic form, teaching is developing relationships. In these relationships, a positive rapport is built between student and teacher, leading to better outcomes. However, teachers are caught in a difficult struggle balancing school settings with zero-tolerance policies on student misbehavior and trying to implement empathetic practices to see students grow positively in their own behavior. As teachers, we must be willing to listen and be vulnerable.  Students will thrive in an environment where these two ideals are prevalent, and all students need supportive, trusting relationships to help them grow and improve. Utilizing empathetic practices can help teachers reconnect with their core values and reflect on why they entered the profession in the first place.

How to Respond with Empathy

Students are unique, and there is no one-size-fits-all solution. However, understanding where students are coming from can help teachers find the most effective and productive way to address misbehavior in the classroom. The primary goal when responding to misbehavior is not to punish students, but to end the negative behavior as quickly—and with as little disruption—as possible, so everyone can get back to learning.

One highly effective strategy comes from the Responsive Classroom belief, and that is the use of logistical consequences. In this example, students understand the effects of their actions, and are provided the tools to make better choices in the future. Examples of logical consequences are Respectful; with a focus on the specific behavior to be changed and not a judgement about the child’s character, Related; directly connected to the actions of the student, and Realistic; something that is realistic for the student to do and for the teacher to follow through on. The logical consequences approach allows for students to have a consequence that matches their transgression, providing for actual growth and ownership of the responsibility to make better decisions.

Another specific approach in responding with empathy is practicing positive teacher language. This practice involves reinforcing language and affirming students’ specific positive actions, while encouraging them to continue the appropriate behavior. This professional use of words and tone of voice enables students to learn in an engaged, active way and focuses on direct language usage when giving directions, noting positive behaviors, prompting students to remember rules, and holding a discussion. This clear and direct language is free of sarcasm, innuendo, and other negative forms of language that students often don’t understand.

Teachers enter the profession to build positive relationships with students, and help young people learn and grow to meet their ultimate potential. No teacher enters the teaching profession specifically to address student misbehavior or unfairly punish a student. Utilizing an empathetic approach to classroom management and discipline can refocus and re-center teachers on their core values and reasoning behind becoming teachers, while allowing students to maximize their potential as learners.

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