Harnessing the Power of Empathy in the Classroom & Implications for Experiential Educators

Harnessing the Power of Empathy in the Classroom & Implications for Experiential Educators
Submitted by Ritch Hochstetler, President & CEO of uLEAD, Inc.

“Changing the mindset of one teacher can change the social experience of that child’s entire world,” according to social psychologist Jason Okonofua of Stanford University.

How can he make such a provocative claim?  In July of 2016, Okonofua and two colleagues published results from their latest research entitled: Brief intervention to encourage empathic discipline cuts suspension rates in half among adolescents.

The purpose of the research was to address the challenge of how to reduce in and out of school time suspensions for middle school students.  According to their study the number of students suspended in the United States has nearly tripled since the mid-70’s, costing taxpayers millions, and more importantly, denying children opportunities to learn while greatly increasing the odds of negative life outcomes down the road.

The focus of the brief intervention was with middle school math teachers.   Okonofua’s hypothesis was that if teachers show students respect while disciplining; it may improve student’s behavior.  The first module of intervention utilized a 45-minute (in person) workshop.  In this workshop one group of teachers were taught an empathic mindset while the other was taught the punitive mindset.

A contrast of the two mindsets includes the following:

Empathetic Mindset: Punitive Mindset:
Convey care and respect Convey authority and compliance
How do we understand? How do we discipline?
Student may be traumatized                            Student has attitude issues
See hidden potential                                           See behavior problems


Both groups then were asked to read brief articles and given discipline scenarios with a focus on how they saw a teacher’s mindset impacting student behavior. Teachers in the empathic mindset group were reminded that student’s feelings about school and behavior in school improve when teachers successfully convey the care and respect that students crave.  Then they were told to reflect on their feelings as a middle school student and how a teacher who makes his or her students feel heard, valued, and respected shows them that school is fair and they can grow and succeed there.

The second module intervention included a 25-minute online exercise on ways to resolve misbehavior in class.  The research shows that teachers most often view respect in terms of cooperation and compliance.  It’s a different story, however, for students, who most often view respect in terms of basic recognition of your humanity (remembering my name, not speaking down to, not embarrassing me in front of my peers, expressing interest and value in my perspective). 

The results from Okonofu’s study of 2,000 middle school students in California were mind blowing!  Suspensions were cut in half for students whose teacher’s were taught the empathic mindset.  In addition, they were significantly more likely to report two months later that teachers respected them.  And most compelling, this intervention with middle school math teachers, in one class, affected the interactions the students had with teachers in all their classes.

What implications or doors of opportunity does this study present for experiential educators?  Allow me to present a few “what ifs?” to spark dialogue. 

1. What if, before trying to harness the power of empathy for our students and participants, we as trainers, educators, and practitioners, first shine the light on ourselves?  With more intentional self-reflection and study, what might we discover about our own mindset and how we do or don’t show respect and empathy to those we serve?  Lest we become the “starving baker” who bakes the cake for others but never eats it herself, our leadership can only be strengthened by self-reflection and assessment of our own emotional intelligence. 

2. What if, in all of our experiential trainings with youth workers and educators, we focus on new ways to weave the empathic mindset into our initiatives and debriefs?   How might we go further in “hot-wiring” our best tools, resources, meaning-makers, to grow empathy? What if we explored how design thinking might work together with our experiential pedagogy? According to Rusul Alrubail, the core principles of design thinking are to empathize, define, ideate, prototype, and test. She believes design thinking can be a powerful way of teaching students empathy in that it teaches them how to solve another person’s problems by providing creative and innovative solutions that relate to his or her needs.

3. What if we change our mindset from seeing empathy as a personality trait to a skill that can be taught?  Researcher Robin Everhart, Virginia Commonwealth University, exhorts, we must re-conceive of empathy as a skill, rather than as a personality trait or virtue.  How might we approach individuals or groups differently with this mindset?  Robin goes on to show how empathy, both the cognitive component of perspective-taking, and the emotional component of compassion, are best taught in the “zone of proximal development” where mastery happens through guidance and support in relationship with others.  This sounds familiar, right?  Perhaps we should revisit Dewey’s foundational work on continuity and interaction with an empathic lens?

As experiential educators, we are gardeners in the fertile ground of discovery and learning.  The research is clear that when people grow their cognitive and emotional skills to better “walk in another’s shoes,” the byproducts of respect, feeling heard, and valued are incredibly powerful tools to heal hurts, bridge divides, and build self worth.   I am compelled to believe that our role is a special one, and that harnessing the power of empathy in our teaching and training may be the most transformative work we will ever do.


For more information on Stanford’s study, Harnessing the Power of Empathy in the Classroom:



For more information on Teaching Empathy Through Design Thinking, by Rusul Alrubail



For more information on Robin’s study, Empathy Activators: Teaching Tools for Enhancing Empathy Development in Service-Learning Classes






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