How Active Listening Builds a Compassionate Classroom

by | Mar 8, 2017

What is active listening? How do we practice it in our daily lives, and especially in our classrooms? Active listening, as we’ll learn, is listening that’s compassionate, connected, and present. It’s a far cry from the way many people listen nowadays, and it takes practice and patience. The benefits to both listener and speaker, however, are immeasurable. This is especially true in classrooms.

In the article How to Listen with Compassion in the Classroom, educator Martha Caldwell makes a case for active listening using 7 practices that work in any class.


Caldwell reminds us that students need to feel like they belong. In the absence of that need being fulfilled, they will often play for power and seek to look “cool” rather than work to foster meaningful connections with those around them. The key to transforming this, she says, is through teaching the importance of active listening:

“We can intentionally design classroom communities that challenge this dynamic by teaching and modeling compassionate listening. When clear ground rules for respectful communication are established from the outset, classrooms become safe places for students to share their lives with each other and find support for their growth and development. When students’ need to belong is met in the context of a healthy learning environment, authentic inquiry, and higher-order thinking naturally emerge.”

Clearly, with our ability to listen comes the opening of doorways to higher learning experiences. Ultimately, learning the practice of active listening creates a sense of belonging in our classrooms by default. Caldwell goes on to state that the act of listening “helps relieve the pain that often clouds perception, and when people feel heard, validated, and understood, they are better able to figure out solutions on their own.”


7 Ways Active Listening Works in Our Classrooms

Caldwell’s 7 principles for active listening can help students foster listening skills for building strong relationships and healthy, compassionate classroom communities. 

  1. Be present: Pay full attention when someone is speaking to create a sense of safety and focus in the classroom. Give attention to the full experience including words, expressions, body language, and even the silences between words. 
  2. Listening is enough: Listening doesn’t mean giving advice or intervening. We can’t listen if we’re waiting for our turn to talk. 
  3. Respond with acceptance: Genuine interest and heartfelt concern indicate that a speaker’s words will be received without judgement. 
  4. Conflict is part of real learning: When people are honest, conflict can arise. But if handled properly, conflict can be a catalyst for beneficial change. 
  5. Ask good questions: Authentic questions are motivated by a desire to learn more rather than reinforce preconceived notions.
  6. Be gentle: Deep listening involves compassion for oneself and for others. Active listening means allowing yourself time to process and learn.
  7. Embrace candidness: When it comes to actively listening, it takes courage for people to put themselves out there. Chances are they are trusting you to keep things confidential and respect their privacy and their feelings. Honor that trust deeply.


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