Preventive Discipline / Socioemotional Learning
Address Disciplinary Problems with Empathy
Strategies that help teachers respond to disciplinary issues with empathy and understanding


Some days it may be easier to show caring for students than others. Many teachers say that some of the greatest challenges they face—and some of their best opportunities for helping students—occur after students misbehave.

Disciplinary situations can be difficult because they often touch on students’ sensitivities. Students worry about being treated unfairly, and they are sensitive to any sign that others—especially authority figures, like teachers—are treating them unfairly. These worries can cause students to experience stress, to overreact, and even to disengage from school.

Some students have additional reasons to worry if people will treat them fairly. For instance, students from low income families and students of color may hear discouraging stories from friends, parents, or the media about how their group is treated by authority figures. So it’s completely understandable that these students are sometimes especially sensitive to how they are treated by their teachers. Unfortunately, these worries can lead students to perceive signs of bias or disrespect even in routine classroom management. Suppose a teacher disciplines a boy who is talking loudly. The student may think, “Why me? Everyone was talking?” and conclude that the school is biased against him or people like him. That perception, in turn, can lead to the student’s behavior deteriorating further and, eventually, to the student disengaging completely from school.

Fortunately, disciplinary encounters can also offer teachers rich opportunities to talk with students and build trust (1). Sometimes, the most emotionally honest conversations that teachers have with their students are conversations about misbehavior. Below are two strategies for turning difficult disciplinary encounters into opportunities for building trust and understanding.

Talk to Students in Private. When a student gets in trouble, many teachers find it helpful to take the student aside and talk to them in private, rather than in front of the class. This gives the student time to “cool down” and removes any pressure they may feel to be defiant in front of classmates.

Show Students You Hear Their Perspective. When a student misbehaves, it can be helpful to take time to hear the student’s point of view. Perhaps they feel that they were treated unfairly, or perhaps they disagree with a rule. You may or may not agree with what the student says, but you want to convey to the student that their viewpoint and feelings matter to you. Even when students are unable to articulate why they misbehaved, asking for their point of view communicates that you are on their side and want to understand them—even though you may have to take disciplinary action. To listen and understand your students does not mean you have to agree with them. However, taking the time to listen and to show interest in their perspective demonstrates care.


1. Okonofua, J. A., Paunesku, D., & Walton, G. M. (2016). Brief intervention to encourage empathic discipline cuts suspension rates in half among adolescents. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 113(19), 5221–5226.

Associated Measures

To help teachers track their progress in communicating caring to their students, the Engagement Project uses three survey questions.

  • This week, my teacher treated me with respect.
  • I feel like my teacher is glad that I am in their class.
  • I feel like my teacher cares what I think. 

Preferred Citation

The Engagement Project by PERTS