The Secret to a Peaceful Classroom: Connecting with Empathy

Feb 14, 2019

As teachers in today’s schools, we often are overwhelmed with our “to-dos.”

We’re trying to manage the classroom, keep up with the curriculum, keep track of the snow days (at least here in Michigan!), the time you’ve lost and need to make up, and sometimes we forget about being able to connect with students with empathy. We typically don’t have a problem empathizing when students are feeling sad, but when to-dos are high and good behavior is running low, empathy is usually at the bottom of our list.

kids playingAs parents in today’s world, we might find ourselves in a similar boat with our children, struggling to empathize when their behavior is not what we would prefer. Typically, parents fall into one of several categories (whether they realize it or not – and it might change on any given day!): Helicopter parents, which make up a large majority of the parenting we see, are the parents who hover around the child making sure everything is going to be ok and everything will be fixed for their child. Drill sergeant parents tend to operate under the assumption that the louder they yell, the more control they have, and they expect that their word is law that should be obeyed immediately and without question. The Love and Logic® parent works to helps kids learn what behavior is acceptable and non-acceptable in their home (and this also applies to teachers in their classrooms!).

When I first started teaching and presenting, I was a Love and Logic® trainer. I had gone through a training course to learn how to teach parenting classes for parents, and the funniest part was that I didn’t have children at the time! So, of course I had all the answers about how to raise children. How easy it is for those without children to judge or give feedback on how they think a child should behave!

Once I did have children, Love and Logic® taught me several great guiding principles that I used with Emma (becoming a teenager this summer!) and Connor (turning double digits next week!). I think about how parenting has shifted since my kids were little, how the children seem to have the control in a household now, instead of the parents. As I work in schools today, I see a lot of entitlement and children who are used to instant gratification because that’s what they experience at their house. Especially among the 21st century parents who are always on the go and plugged into technology, things like neutralizing arguments, delayed consequences, and practicing empathy (a few of the Love and Logic® principles), will help create boundaries for children as to what kind of behavior is expected and appropriate for the classroom or home.

Practicing Empathy

This is probably one of the most important skills you can develop in dealing with children. The other strategies we’re going to talk about today are based on this one key strategy – empathizing with the child when they’re misbehaving. We must exhibit genuine empathy rather than anger at undesired behavior. This could be as simple as saying “I know” in a low, even tone of voice and in a sympathetic way. It’s easy to let this become sarcastic, as we often don’t agree with what they’re doing, but just that simple phrase can help you engage in and communicate empathy to a child in the middle of a tantrum.

Connecting with empathy is hard. But, you want to really take that negative emotion you feel when kids are misbehaving in front of you, defying your authority, and understand that it’s not necessarily within your control or their control. It isn’t a winning or losing battle. Kids might start with something like, “It’s not fair!” or “Everyone else gets to go out for recess!” You can just say, “I know,” and watch the situation unfold.

“My other teachers aren’t so mean!”

“I know.”

“You never let me do anything.”

“I know.”

“You don’t like kids.”

And so on and so forth until they eventually run out of steam.

Neutralizing Student Argument

Few Words

When kids are acting out, they like to try and lure you into an argument with their statements. But with Love and Logic, we don’t ever want to allow a student or child to suck you into their brain-draining argument ever again! I’ve stopped many arguments with my own children by reminding them that this is not a negotiation!

Neutralizing arguments starts with genuine empathy (see above) and a heartfelt, “I know.” And then you need to have a one-line response to use over and over again, like a broken record. My line, delivered in a calm, even voice no matter what tone of voice my personal children have is always, “I love you too much to argue.”

They keep trying to engage in an argument, “But, but, but!” I keep my broken record playing, and when combined with my empathetic, “I know,” my one-liner can help de-escalate the situation.

“But Mom! You never…”

“I know. I love you too much to argue.”

“But, but, but…!”

“I know. I love you too much to argue!”

You have to decide what your one line response will be. It must be something simple that can be said consistently every time. Some examples: “Oh, what a bummer.” “I know.” “Probably so.” Giving more words to an argument with a child is like putting lighter fluid on what they’re saying and it causes the student to get exactly what they want, which is your attention and, ultimately, their way.

The typical reaction of an adult when a student starts to argue is to fight back with negative emotion, giving the argument more words and more attention. We think, if we could just explain to the child why something is a certain way, that child would understand and comply. But what we need to do to avoid arguing is to change our words into enforceable statements, statements that tell children what we will do or allow, rather than trying to tell them what to do.

Change the Language

For example:

Instead of: “I’m sick and tired of telling you to sit down on your bottom! Kids can’t see if you’re standing up!” try: “Kids that are sitting on their bottoms can hear the story for read-aloud.”

Instead of: “How many times do I have to tell you to put your name on your paper??” try: “Kids with their names on their paper can go to Free Choice.”

Instead of: “How many times do I have to tell you to raise your hand before shouting out answers??” try: “I will call on students that have their hands raised.”

Think of the things you have to yell most frequently (maybe even today or yesterday!). You can practice with yourself to take those kinds of words and turn them into a statement of what you will allow that will begin to neutralize arguments. Here’s a great PDF resource from Love and Logic with lots of examples:

snowy swingIt’s sometimes easier said than done, however, and often it involves giving up control on our part and realizing that we can’t actually make kids do anything. For example, take this common phrase, uttered by many children about to go out to recess: “I don’t want to take my coat outside.” Maybe the temperature is fluctuating and students feel like it might be warm enough to go without a coat. However, one of the big reasons you want students to take their coats outside is you don’t want them having to come back inside when they decide they want it during recess. If they have it, they can put it on or take it off, but they don’t have to come back to get it. So instead of arguing about it, give students options you can live with. Whether they want to wear it or carry it is up to them, but the enforceable statement sounds something like: “Students with coats may go out to recess.”

Another example:  “I should get extra time to stay in free choice! It’s not my fault I didn’t finish my center!” The enforceable statement says: “Students that have finished their center time are able to go to free choice.”

Enforceable statements allow you to communicate what you want to happen, but take the emotion out of it and put the ownership of their behavior back on the student who must now make a choice. Do they comply with your statement to get the desired result that you’ve outlined? If they don’t choose to exhibit the required behavior, they are fully aware of what will or will not happen.

We can also teach kids to use this same approach to neutralizing arguments among peers. We use the idea of a bug and a wish. I’ve seen this on a bulletin board before, where the teacher put up a gross looking bug and a picture of a fairy wand. Instead of lashing out in frustration when a classmate is constantly tapping their pencil, a student could calmly say  “It bugs me when you’re tapping your pencil. I wish you would keep your pencil still.” “It bugs me when you are poking me when we’re on the carpet. I wish you would keep your hands to yourself.”

When children need attention, they will assume the emotional state and choose the behavior that gets them the attention. Ultimately, we have to help children take the attention that they need and channel it into whatever emotional state we want them to exhibit. If you want your child to be happy and playful, reacting with empathy and enforceable statements can help help them maintain that demeanor.  If you’re giving kids attention by negatively talking to them, that is the state that they will assume. What do you want for your students? Do we want them to be upset and whiny? Angry and complaining? Aggressive and sad? Or more calm and respectful? Diligent and generous? We definitely don’t want our students on the negative side of this emotional spectrum, so we must respond with empathy and help them understand the type of behavior that is acceptable and expected so they can be successful.

Delayed Consequences

Some schools of thought advocate for administering the consequence immediately after students or children misbehave. However, delaying consequences is often very helpful for both the child and the adult involved. This is especially true for adults who are upset and might not be thinking clearly. I’m sure you, like me, can think of a time or two when you were livid about something that happened and impulsively assigned an unrealistic consequence: “You are are never watching TV again!” “I’m going to get rid of every toy in your closet!” Kids catch on quickly, and when they hear things like that, they are pretty sure that you can’t or won’t follow through, or you’ll forget in a few days.

When you’re working with a student in an emotional state, either completely shut down or throwing a temper tantrum, they are unable to problem solve and is not the right time for consequences.

timeoutAlso, sometimes you just don’t know how to respond or what might be an appropriate consequence for the action. More often than not, this has been my experience. I’ve realized that it’s ok to not have all the answers on the tip of your tongue. Actually, it’s often more effective! When I use delayed consequences the most with my personal children is when I want the consequences to sink in, for the child to really think about what’s happening.

To delay the consequences, I usually say something like, “Oh, I see that ____ has happened. Well, try not to worry about it. I’ll be thinking about what the consequences are going to be. Go on and go to school, play with your friends, have a good time, but I’ll have to be thinking about what is going to happen.” I said this just the other day to my almost-thirteen-year-old. About 15 times that day, she asked if I’d thought about what the consequence was going to be. My response was, “I know you’re worried about it. But try not to think about it. I’m still working on it, but when I figure out the consequence, I’ll let you know.”  You can guess what kind of day she had! For kids, the concept of the delay is almost worse than the consequence itself!

The Love and Logic® website has some amazing articles and resources for parents and teachers! Check out the infographics and their YouTube Channel!


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