Empathy in the Classroom

People often think that empathy is synonymous with sympathy and they will use them interchangeably. According to the Oxford dictionary, empathy means the ability to understand and share the feelings of another, whereas sympathy means feelings of pity and sorrow for someone else’s misfortune. They both have an emotional impact, yet the outcome in your classroom will be very different.
According to Dr Brené Brown, “Empathy fuels connections, sympathy drives disconnection.” There’s a world of difference between these two outcomes. Take some time now to listen to this short video by Dr Brown.


Sympathy is a fairly superficial response to someone’s feelings or situation. One feels sorry for them and you wish they were happier and things were better yet there is no sharing in their distress. One feels concern and care, however, it probably won’t lead to any action.


We empathise on a much deeper level than just sympathising. It is the ability to recognise and share in the emotions of the other person. It’s seeing things from their perspective. With the knowledge that empathy builds connections, it’s easy to see how this would create a positive impact in the classroom. Let’s explore this further.

How to respond to your learners with empathy

It’s not always easy to respond with empathy. It’s a choice. It takes effort and time, commodities that are already stretched to the limit in a busy classroom. However, it is worth it. Here are some ideas to implement in order to respond with empathy.

1. Don’t assume

It is necessary to ask questions and not assume that you know what is going on or how a learner is feeling. Allow the person to share what’s on their mind without them feeling that you have already sized up the situation. Put aside your own perspective and endeavour to see the situation through their eyes.

2. Listen intently

Give your full attention and listen to not just the words, but the tone of voice as well – listen for what is not being said. Just listen! A learner will value the opportunity to express themselves without feeling judged.  Reflect to the learner what you think they are saying as this gives them the chance to correct any misunderstanding and clarify things in their own minds.

3. Seek to understand

Find a way to understand what the learner is feeling or going through. Maybe you can draw from your own experiences, nevertheless, keep in mind that each person’s experiences are unique. Do not denounce them in any way but rather validate what they are sharing as real. Be sure to reassure them that there is always a solution.

4. Don’t think you have to “fix it”

As teachers, we are natural problem-solvers although in this case chill! Sometimes it can be way more useful just to listen and understand. Consider the fact that maybe they actually don’t want you to “fix it”. By talking things out a learner may very well reach their own solution and in the process learn the valuable tool of problem-solving.

5. Offer support

Once all has been said you can offer support and solutions if the learner is open to it.
Ask yourself if you really listen and understand your learners. Empathy is a powerful tool for classroom management and more importantly for growing learners that will flourish and succeed. So, next time you notice a learner struggling, stop and find out what really is going on. Your learners will feel valued, respected and loved. Empathy… it builds connections!

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