The Power of Empathy (Part II) – Connecting with a Teacher

Apr 14, 2013

After having a breakthrough empathic conversation with my son (see previous post: “The power of empathy in connecting with a child”), I thought he felt much relief and that most of his troubles were behind him. That wasn’t quite the case, however. The following morning he declared that he hadn’t slept well at all and that he had pain in his stomach again (from the stress). He wasn’t ready to face his teacher. The day before, he had felt heard and understand and was sensing safety with me and his father  . . . yet things hadn’t changed yet in the classroom. He was in tears – absolutely unable to compile the courage needed to go to school. I decided to change my early morning work appointment in order to help figure this out. What to do? Nico was adamant that I couldn’t talk with his teacher. Yet after some discussion, we decided it was the best strategy for meeting his need for emotional safety at school.

Luckily, my husband could go with me – he arrived first, and arranged for an “urgent meeting.”  The teacher greeted us rather tensely, no doubt wondering why on earth we might make such a rare request. I realized on our way up the stairs that she might be preparing herself for an unwelcome confrontation. I decided to pat her shoulder gently while saying, “I imagine it’s a pretty hard time for you in the class, and I just want you to know that we recognize that and are not here to lay any blame – just to seek some mutual understanding.” I felt the tension in her ease up. She thanked me for those words. Then we sat and proceeded to share with her what Nico experienced yesterday and the tension he seems to have built up. How he didn’t like to “displease” her and yet supporting his friends in the name of “justice” typically felt more important to him. This torn place he has landed in is causing physical distress – so much that he didn’t sleep well and is now home dreading coming to school.

She wasn’t aware – had only noticed his rule-breaking behavior. Her words gave me trust that she was feeling more compassion for him, now that she knew he was genuinely disturbed by what’s going on. We made a point to share with her that he also felt empathy for her . . . “she’s in the middle of a move and I guess that’s really stressful.”

Thank goodness, the teacher was really open to all of this – likely because she received initial empathy instead of judgment or blame. She expressed that she was glad she knew, and would make an effort to connect with Nico one-on-one when he came to school in the afternoon.

He came home that afternoon a much, much happier kid. The difference was amazing! He was that sweet, caring, fun-loving kid we know – even to his sister, which we haven’t seen in quite a while. He told he learned to share his feelings earlier, so that tension doesn’t get so pent up in the future.

As for me . . . I’m quite sure I’ve never felt this empowered in all of my life. I owe it all to the amazing power of empathy.


Cara Crisler
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2 Comments. Leave new

So Nico is the name of your son right?
And I have something I wonder about when I read your story. When you write: Nico was adamant that I couldn’t talk with his teacher. Yet after some discussion, we decided it was the best strategy for meeting his need for emotional safety at school. With who did you have that discussion. Did you talk about it with Nico and then he changed his mind and then he was open for you going to the school? Or did you discuss with somebody else and decided with that other person that you would go to the school anyway, no matter if Nico said you can’t go?
Or when Nico said you can’t talk to the teacher, did he mean, it’s ok for me when you go there and try, but it won’t have any effect because it’s of no use to talk to her.
If it’s the first option, it would be interesting for me to read more about how you discussed that with Nico. If it’s the second, I am interested to hear how that is for Nico.
Or, if you meant something different, please let me know.

April 15, 2013 8:13 am

Yes, Nico is my son (he has a different last name than mine). He was adamant at first when I suggested it as a strategy. Then we stayed focused on his need for emotional safety in the classroom (having it at home, with his parents wasn’t enough, he was telling me). We tried to brainstorm other strategies, and at one point after asking me what I would say, he said it would be o.k. with me/us talking with his teacher. He didn’t want to be involved in the conversation, which I had hoped (in which case I saw myself mediating when needed, but letting them do all the talking). But I respected his decision. It worked out well, I think, because the teacher had a one-on-one conversation with him once he returned to school. She really got the message that he was affected very much by the stress in the classroom and wasn’t feeling safe enough to go to school. This morning (next school day), Nico’s other teacher was fully up to speed, and she told me that she was planning on having a full-group discussion about everyone’s FEELINGS! More breakthrough – like an empathic domino effect! At least I hope that they are all able to fully hear what is shared, so that they can all come to a better place. The tricky part it seems has to do with the teacher who is most involved with the stressful situation – how will she play a role in this new strategy?


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