A Classroom Management Strategy: Empathy

Meet Mary, a high school teacher serving "at risk" students in Phoenix. She has been struggling with her classroom. Students were being distracted and causing distractions. Students were blasting their music from their phones, talking to each other (not related to any learning), texting friends, and terribly unengaged in general. It spread and worsened throughout the year. She tried strategy after strategy... nothing was working. It was a strange year indeed, she never had these kinds of issues, and she felt stuck and disempowered in her own classroom.

Feeling stuck is usually a sign that we are seeing the world from a limited perspective. By expanding our perspectives, we can expand our options, and then make more empowered choices. One way to include new perspectives is developing deep empathy for someone, stepping into the shoes of another person,and seeing the world from their point of view. Gaining understanding of why Mary's students were disengaged can help Mary gain the perspective she needs to get unstuck.

Empathy Mapping

I helped conduct a session with her and her students using a technique called Empathy Mapping. It is a simple visual tool that allows you to collaborate with others around seeking to understand someone or a group. I have used Empathy mapping time and time again for for learner-centered design of classrooms and curriculum, never failing to produce those "ahhh, now I see" moments.

Each Empathy Map is for one person or group.

For our session, we had two Empathy Mapping posters, one representing the Teacher and one representing Students.

Agile Classrooms -Empathy Map.png

The Empathy Map is divided into 3 groups and 6 sections as follows"

External World (the top 2 right quadrants)

1. Observing - What is the person/group observing through their senses? What are they seeing, hearing, touching, smelling?

2. Saying and Doing - What is the observable behavior of that person/group?

Internal World (the top 2 left quadrants)

3. Thinking - What might the person/group be thinking to themselves about what they are observing?

4. Feeling - What is the person/group feeling? These are emotions such as sad scared, happy, calm, angry, tired. You can download a Feelings Inventory reference sheet from the Center for Nonviolent Communications website.

Needs (the bottom two squares)

5. Unmet Needs - What needs are unmet that trigger their dissatisfaction or disengagement?

6. Met Needs - What needs are being met currently that trigger their satisfaction or engagement. Needs are such things as the need for respect, safety, learning, engagement. You can find a Needs Inventory reference sheet from the Center for Nonviolent Communications website.

Our Empathy Mapping Session

The goal of the session was for teachers and students to develop empathy for one another that may evoke insights for creating a more engaged classroom. Here is how we did it.

  1. We placed two Empathy Mapping posters on the classroom whiteboard. We labeled one teacher, and the other student.

  2. I asked students to write down on sticky notes what their teacher might be experiencing during a class in each section of the empathy map.

  3. I asked the teachers to write down on sticky notes what their students might be experiencing during a class in each section of the empathy map.

  4. Each group posted their guesses on the Empathy Map posters.

  5. I then asked the students to look at what the teachers guessed about them and also for teachers to view what students guessed about them. Remarkably, they both said it was pretty accurate.

  6. I then asked for them to add to their own Empathy Map, if there was anything missing.

Empathy Mapping Session with Teachers & Students


  • Teachers were relieved and delighted to see that students stated "Needs Met" for teachers when they saw students being successful.

  • Students and teachers both agreed regarding the distractions of classmates talking, cell phones, and music.

  • Students had a high sense of autonomy, need for respect from teachers and peers, and high value for social connections.

  • Students needs were met when:

  • teachers were "calm"

  • teachers made respectful requests to students (such as saying “please”)

  • they worked in teams

  • they were being creative

  • they finally understand the material

  • Student needs were unment when:

  • there were too many distractions from classmates, such as too many people talking in class and music from phones.