As an educator, I often find the transition to online instruction clouded with uncertainty and self-doubt. There is no handbook offering clear information on how to fully move K–12 education online. I can only imagine that these feelings must be more intense for my students.

Practicing empathy has helped me establish a more productive relationship with students and is an effective way to overcome many challenges.

The Importance of Empathy

Many teachers already understand the importance of empathetic practice. It is a key to understanding ourselves and those around us.

In the classroom, we practice it by listening to our students to understand their situations. This occurs naturally in a traditional classroom but, in an online teaching situation, it might not always be possible to communicate with our students in the ways that we would like to. 

Thankfully, there are many things we can do to hone our ability to empathize. We just need to be more conscientious about practicing empathy in the classroom and creating an atmosphere that nurtures relationship-building. 

Students holding pictures of happy and sad faces

Understanding Your Students and Their Feelings

Students don’t show up to our online classes wearing name tags that tell us their difficulties. They don’t have signs on their foreheads describing their anxieties, time-management difficulties, or home-life situations. It’s up to us to exercise our most effective relationship-building strategies and flexible practices that account for obstacles students may be confronting.

A student may have had an argument with a sibling before school that is impacting her ability to focus. Another student may have had a death in the family that is weighing on his emotions. Insight into the circumstances that impact your students' performance, feelings, and reactions in the online classroom is an invaluable tool for us.

Whether you teach in a traditional or online setting, it can be tricky to relate to how your students are feeling. In an online world, though, it takes a different approach that might not come naturally because online teachers typically communicate with students through email or instant messaging rather than face-to-face. 

Here are some exercises you can practice to put you on track for employing empathy in an online classroom:

Spark Emotional Participation

  • Check in often with a “how are you feeling” question, whether you ask in a chat or in a video session.
  • Let students weigh in throughout your lesson with emojis so you can determine how they are emotionally digesting and reacting to various aspects of the subject matter.
  • Encourage them to share their thoughts by asking purposeful questions in the classroom that are open-ended and elicit deeper thinking.

Student watching teacher on computer

Provide a Visual

  • Requiring students to be on camera during class is arguably the most effective way you can encourage empathy development in your online classroom. It provides an opportunity to view the emotional states of others and activates students’ mirror neurons, enabling them to share the emotion of another student and better understand their circumstances.
  • Having teachers and their students connect "face-to-face" with video and microphone allows for a better flow of conversations, during which adolescents can pick up on important psychosocial skills and develop empathy.
  • Using video continuously can cause video fatigue for some, but teachers could reasonably request 15 to 20 minutes in each lesson with breaks to ensure this does not occur.

Encourage Interaction

  • Allow for break-out sessions or project work groups to let students discuss ideas in a smaller setting. The approach teaches teamwork and allows them to hear a variety of perspectives. When we allow for this kind of collaborative and cooperative learning, we give students a chance to practice empathy, and we give ourselves a perspective on their personalities by observing how they interact.
  • Challenge yourself to creatively incorporate role-playing into the group or classwork. It helps students to put themselves in others' shoes and understand more clearly how varying circumstances impact, for example, decision making.
  • On days when technology works against you, encourage phone calls where students can talk with each other about a cooperative task. 

Teacher interacting with online student

Nurture empathetic practices

  • Provide mindfulness activities, such as guided meditation and exercises that focus on sounds and sensations that happen in the present.
  • If a student seems upset, make the time to take her aside for an online chat or video call to express your empathy.
  • Lead by example. If you express your empathy, your students will feel more comfortable expressing themselves.
  • Use a conversational style during the lesson and when giving feedback as a way to improve empathetic interactions.

Know When to be Empathetic

Think of a time when you were empathetic. Using this example, answer the following questions:

  • What was the situation?
  • Who was involved?
  • How did you feel?
  • What response occurred after you were empathetic?

Sometimes, it's tempting to express empathy without thinking about the entire situation. Remember to think about the following before jumping in:

  • Is the individual looking for empathy?
  • How would you feel in his or her situation?
  • How can you provide empathy?

Asking questions can build your own awareness of empathy. It is imperative to take time to reflect before acting. Your actions can be very influential to online learners and their families.

Self-Empathy Plays a Leading Role

Focusing on self-empathy is a wonderful way to start building empathy for others. It starts with analyzing your own way of thinking. Taking time to understand your own feelings can be beneficial to your students as well. Try these ideas to start practicing self-empathy:
  • Write in a daily journal.
  • Practice mindfulness techniques, such as meditation.
  • Pause often to reflect on your feelings.
  • Ask yourself questions.
  • Connect past experiences to current ones.

Research shows that success in remote learning is dependent on empathetic interactions between the teacher and each student, as well as other class members. Empathy can improve motivation and comprehension in the digital classroom. 

Take a moment right now to reflect on the ways you already practice empathy. Do you understand empathy? Have you taken time to reflect on your own thoughts? How can you practice empathy in the online learning environment?

ErikaDusoErika Duso has over eight years of combined online and classroom teaching experience. She is currently a Teacher Facilitator for first-grade math and social studies for Lincoln Learning Solutions. Erika enjoys backpacking, reading, and looking for rocks in the Great Lakes.