Empathy Interviews

Change Package
Empathy Interviews

TK-5 Education Specialist at Howard Gardner Community School
By Kyxie Dominguez

Have you ever wondered why a student’s behavior suddenly changed? Perhaps there’s been constant repetition of challenging/disruptive behavior in the classroom that has been impeding the learning of the entire class? As educators, we can sometimes forget the key of behavior as communication. If you’ve stopped to ask a student, “how are you?” You’re already halfway there to helping make a difference. Empathy interviews are designed to help individuals dig much deeper than the surface of “how are you?” and the standard response of “I’m fine.” It helps us identify not only the current state of students, but it also helps us gain understanding as to what our students needs are and how we can support them.


  1. Empathy builds positive classroom culture. In the article, “Developing Empathy in the Classroom,” Bob Sornson explains how empathy is the heart of the classroom. Empathy helps students and teachers gain a better understanding of one another and establishes positive relationships based on trust.
  2. Empathy strengthens the community. The article “Empathy in the Classroom:

Why Should I Care?” by Lisa Owen emphasizes the definition of empathy as understanding another’s feelings without having experience and utilizing these skills outside of classroom walls. Because of this, students are able to create more long term positive relationships with not only their classmates, but also with others in their community.

  1. Empathy prepares students to be leaders. Leaders cannot be leaders if they do not understand the needs of those people they lead. If leaders do not show they care, how could others feel safe and protected.. yet alone capable and valued? Empathy has been found to positively relate to job performance.
  2.  Empathy can help support academic achievement, higher test scores, AND behaviors. “ In humans, stress negatively affects learning and brain development in children, mostly affecting the prefrontal cortex which manages non-cognitive skills like self-control along with memory and reasoning.” (Townsend 2012). Research shows that if a student has primarily lived or is living through negative childhood experiences, they the odds of having a learning or behavior problem in school was 32 times as high as kids who were raised in a more positive environment. Students who have lived their life with a “secure attachment” are considered to be more socially competent and confident throughout their lives. Students who have experienced a better upbringing are more than likely to be engaged in the classroom, but this does not mean that those who did not are incapable! Because students with a rough upbringing are still completely capable, empathy can help reduce any damaging effects of stress and increase more possibilities. “Empathy isn’t just about hugs and pats on the back. It is a skill that can make young people more productive in work environments that require cooperation and in a global economy that becomes more complex with each passing day. It is what turns them into future leaders” (Townsend 2012). “Recent research indicates that academics and empathy need not be viewed as mutually exclusive choices. Bridget Cooper, director of the Centre for Pedagogy at the University of Sunderland, U.K., indicates that modeling and fostering empathy in the classroom can actually improve academic achievement (Wilson 2016).” “If students are to experience empathy, they are more than likely to demonstrate it (Wilson 2016).” Wilson suggests “backing off of objectives” and rather go beyond them in order to focus on the goal of education as “building competent and caring citizens.” It is also suggested that teachers shift away from what is right or wrong, but focus on how to care by building lessons on critical issues such as: poverty, war, clas, gender, consumerism, etc. Students always look for themselves in the main characters of books they read. They need to be able to relate to lessons to some extent and ask “why is this important.” It is our job at teachers to help them better understand the “why” and relate lessons to real life situations. A Standford University Study showed that middle schools with an “empathetic mindset” dropped from 9.6% to 4.8% compared to schools with a “punitive mindset.


How did this impact student learning? What did you learn? How has this changed or shaped your teaching practice? I’m always continuing to learn that there is so much more going on in my student’s life than what we think we already know. I’m pretty well aware of my student’s lives; however, I’m not always aware of what may have occurred over the weekend or over night. I was able to discover a lot of issues going on in my student’s lives and was able to provide appropriate resources and support to not only them but their families as well. Given a lot of this information, I was able to collaborate with their classroom teachers in order to give them a heads up or possibly work with them in accommodating their needs in various ways. I’ve learned and witnessed how teaching empathy and conducting empathy interviews really builds a more positive environment not just with myself and the students but also the interactions of my students with one another inside my classroom (pull out setting) and out in the playground. I’m also starting to see these skills translate towards their families and even towards peers in other classes at school. Sometimes students just need someone to talk to and hear them out.

  1. Observation of What? How? Why?: What are the behaviors you’re observing? What’s obvious or surprising? What are the facts? What seems to be the motivation? How is the student doing? Is additional effort required? How is the student feeling? How is the behavior causing a positive or negative impact? Why is the student doing what he/she is doing? In this step, you’re able to decide how you want to approach the student and help guide your next step. You may also uncover something you never thought you’d realize early on. You’re able to move from a concrete observation to a more complex situation involving emotions and motives.

– What is the person doing?

(what are the observable facts?) – How is the person doing that?

(what emotions and techniques are present?) – Why is the person doing that? in that way?

(what inferences can we draw?)

  1. Interview Preparation & Planning. How are you going to build rapport with your student about this specific situation? How can you still build trust, but still be affirming? Based on your observations, what are your wonderings? What questions do you believe will help your students become more willing to open up to you? Be mindful and flexible in terms of naturally adding other questions into your interview. You may end up removing a question you initially wanted to ask based on what your student may choose or not choose to express. Questions should be open ended and neutrally-stated. See image below for the anatomy of an interview.
  2. Conduct empathy interview!

Resource: Empathy Fieldguide

Designate a date and time for you to pull out your student. If a student would benefit from knowing ahead of time, go ahead and inform them! Naturally start the conversation in a way that isn’t aggressive. Offer to conduct the interview outside or any other preferred setting that is available at the time (helps lessen the seriousness). Based on the student’s current mood/state, you may need to postpone the interview – just don’t wait to conduct the interview too far from an incident (if a specific incident is why the empathy interview is being conducted). It helps to put the pen/pencil and paper down and have a natural conversation. Student’s can feel really tense when it seems as if you’re documenting their every word. If the empathy interview is happening in my office, my students are used to my laptop being next to me – so it’s natural to have the plan for your interview opened up to your side view. Write your notes directly after or type them so you can follow up and provided necessary resources/collaborate with other staff if applicable. Avoid conducting an interview as if it was an interrogation. If a student seems to be unwilling to respond – what other questions could you possibly ask to get them to unveil the desired response. What else can you do or say to have the student feel more comfortable? Don’t be afraid to be vulnerable in order for more stories to come about from the student – but don’t forget the main focus is the student. Be vulnerable to the point where the student is building trust with you because you were willing to share something and they appreciate you trying to relate. Let them speak; don’t speak for them! Also, prepare to have some tissues ready! The interview may run longer than

you expected, so give a heads up to whatever is next on your agenda as well as the student’s.

Tips from Empathy Fieldguide Don’t suggest answers to your questions: Even if they pause before answering, don’t help them by suggesting an answer. This can unintentionally get people to say things that agree with your expectations. Ask questions neutrally. Don’t be afraid of silence: Often if you allow there to be silence, a person will reflect on what they’ve just said and say something deeper. Look for inconsistencies: Sometimes what people say and what they do (or say later) are different. Gracefully probe these contradictions. Be aware of nonverbal cues: Consider body language and emotions. Stay on the same path of a question: Respond to what your interviewee offers and follow up to go deeper. Use simple queries to get him to say more: “Oh, why do you say that?” “What were you feeling at that point?” ASK “WHY?” “What is the reason for that?”

Student 1 Empathy Interview (5th grade): Observed/reported Behavior – Student hasn’t been submitting any classwork or homework. Student is often prompted by his classroom teacher to stay on task or to stop talking. Classroom teacher reported that the student has appeared to be dozing off in class and often times talks back.

Q: Hey (insert name)! How is everything going in Ms. B’s room? A: It’s .. good. Q: Hmm, I noticed you paused a little in between your response. What’s going on? A: Nothing. Q: It seems like something else is on your mind. Correct me if I’m wrong! A: It’s just.. I always get into a lot of trouble Q: Oh, really? Why do you think that is? A: Probably because she hates me. Q: What! I don’t think she hates you.. Can you give me an example of a time you got in trouble that made you feel that way? A: Like.. I was asking (insert table mate’s name here) for help because I didn’t understand what to do.. But then she thought I was talking about something else and yelled at me. Q: Ahh, I see what you’re saying. What was going on in the classroom when you were asking your table mate a question? A: She was going over our math lesson. Q: Did you happen to speak while she was teaching? A: Yea, but it was about what we were doing. She didn’t have to yell at me. But whatever. I’m used to it. Q: Used to it? Why do you say that? A: I always get yelled at.

Q: By Ms. B? Other people? A: By Ms. B… and at home Q: Can we look at Ms. B’s perspective on what you just told me real quick? *we then proceeded to speak about appropriate times to speak in the classroom and how asking for help during inappropriate times of a lesson could come across a different way.. Once the student understood we continued our interview* Q: What’s going on at home? A: Baby (insert baby sister’s name here) is always crying at night. I need to sleep but I don’t. So I keep falling asleep in class and getting in trouble. Q: Does Ms. B know about this? A: No. I tried to tell her but she doesn’t care. Q: Do you think it would be helpful if I could talk to her about a few things you’re feeling? Or maybe we can talk together as a group? A: Maybe.. But yea my baby sister keeps crying and then… *long pause* Q: Take your time. *student proceeds to cry*

Long story short, I was able to find out that the student was going through a lot of personal issues at home other than just his baby sister always crying at night. His mom is currently out of a job, and his step dad has been providing for them. His biological father has not been the best role model in his life but is still a part of it in a negative way. His mother was flying out of state to visit his step-father’s family to which he told me: “I’m afraid she’s never going to come back. What if something happens to the plane. What if she likes that family better than ours. I don’t think she’s going to be back. I’m stupid. My teacher thinks I’m stupid. They think I’m stupid. I’m always getting into trouble so there’s no way she’s going to come back.” The student’s classroom teacher had recently provided a lesson in regards to airplanes where airplane crashes were addressed. Ever since, the student was worried for his mother’s life as well as what’s to come for him in the future. He voiced out that a lot of modifications/accommodations that he is allowed to have weren’t always readily available in the general education environment. Because of this, I was able to reach out to parent (with student knowing). After this interview, my student felt much better and felt comfortable with me checking in with his mom. His mom uncovered more truths in terms of his self esteem and other concerns she’s been having with him and their family. This allowed me to build a positive relationship no only with my student but also with his family. I was also able to help with providing resources to receive outside counseling (individual and family). I have noticed a dramatic difference in this student’s behavior from just one empathy interview as he is now submitting his homework and continuously wanting to do “check-ins” with me. He has become much more positive at school and feels comfortable coming to me whenever something doesn’t feel right. He is more motivated to participate in class and was even able to finish a class project on the solar system that he thought he’d get an incomplete on!

Student 2 Empathy Interview (5th grade) (Overview): Observation – Disrespectful to P.E. staff, yelling, cursing, kicking balls over the fence, not participating in activities, etc.

I would like to have provided a recording of this empathy interview, as it definitely took a little bit longer to conduct as this student had a hard shell to crack. I had to break apart this interview into three sessions. The first session, was me bringing the issue at hand to his attention and having him understand why I wanted to check-in with him. Session 2 was more of the core of the empathy interview, and Session 3 was the follow up with a staff members. Overall, this student ended up communicating how much he hated P.E. and the instructor. I later discovered that this student was in need of more clarification and structure during P.E. For example, the student noticed an inconsistency in scorekeeping which caused him to become angry and eventually didn’t want to participate but would rather yell about how “stupid” he thought everything was (his team was also losing). We were able to troubleshoot this by requesting a tangible scorekeeper and designating someone to be scorekeeper during games. He also mentioned his frustrations about how they’re told Soccer is on the agenda for the day; however, all they would do is an activity that involved a soccer ball. He agreed that knowing what the activity was ahead of time would help and calling it a different name would help as well. The P.E. instructor was more than willing to incorporate these ideas. This student is also receiving additional help for coping with aggression. We were all able to come up with a plan to designate visual “break time” sign between the student and P.E. instructor to which he could get some water, sit out for some time, etc. His participation and behavior in P.E. has largely improved as his grade went from a D to a B! Occasionally, he was in need of certain reminders to be flexible, but definitely a celebration!

Student 3 Empathy Interview (4th grade) (Overview): Observation – Student was screaming and banging hands on the lunch table. He was kicking his peers and wrestling over soccer ball during lunch recess. He was speaking to his peers opposed to following the directions to stretch. Student was continuously making noises after peers did it in class. At the end of the day, he was holding his peers feet when they were on the swing.

This student often demonstrates inconsistencies in his behavior. After conducting an empathy interview with this student, I learned that his father had left his family for the third time this year. He has a great love for his father and often neglects the fact that his mother has been his main supporter all of his life. Because his father appears for random periods of time and then disappears – I noticed that his behaviors primarily occur when he leaves (asking how his weekend was always helps me gauge how the week will probably go). When I was interviewing him, he was willing to open up to me. He mentioned that sometimes he feels he can’t control his urge to put his hands on another student and that he really does benefit from the resistance band in his classroom. I asked him if he would benefit from bringing out a small fidget to leave in his pocket any time he had an urge to be hands on – and he said yes. This (on top of a few other student’s I work with) ultimately had me purchase items to create sensory boxes for all of the primary classrooms I work with. I’ve also provided an exercise corner template (final product is with velcro), and students can take sensory breaks in my office if they are in need (see pictures below). The day before I conducted the interview, this student had a 58% on his daily chart. The next day after we incorporated the fidget in the pocket, he received a 98% on his daily chart.

From my empathy interviews I was able to gain even more of a positive relationship with my students, their families, and their classroom teachers. I was also able to build a positive relationship with South Bay Community Services as I reach out to them when I need to refer my students and their families for outside help! Conducting these empathy interviews helped me discover that more of my students are in need of these resources – some that aren’t even on my caseload.