Scanlan Center for School Mental Health
Teacher working with student

Great educators are active listeners: How to make your students feel heard

Ashley Banta
Ashley Banta
written by

Ashley Banta, MA, LPSC

Skill Development
Teaching & Learning

Think of a time when you had a conversation where the other person listened deeply to you. You felt heard, understood, and seen. What did the other person do? What did they not do? 

Now, what if you could make your students feel that same way after each conversation? What if every student felt that same level of connection, candor, and trust with you?

As a licensed school counselor, I strive to be an active listener. Active listening is a skill that we can all invest more time in developing, especially as educators. Being a better listener means more meaningful relationships with our students (and even colleagues, friends, and family!).

One of the ways to be an active listener is to learn about and practice microskills. 

What are microskills anyway?

Microskills in teaching are counseling skills that enable us to communicate effectively with others, build rapport, and develop relationships of trust. Alternatively, you can conceptualize microskills as simple, discrete teaching behaviors. 

3 microskills to practice to become a better listener 

The following 3 categories of microskill techniques or skills will help you form and foster relationships with your students.

#1 Invitational Skills

Invitation skills help regulate interactions and enhance rapport. They include—openers, nonverbal cues, and minimal encouragers. 

  • Openers – Examples include door opener questions, such as “What is on your mind”? or “It looks like you are feeling a strong emotion. Would you like to talk about it?”   
  • Nonverbal cues – Examples of nonverbal cues include maintaining appropriate eye contact with your students, using silence, and conveying interest through gestures and facial expressions. 
  • Minimal encouragers – Minimal encouragers are small words, such as “yes” or “okay.”

The main thing to remember is that you need to concentrate on the other person. Be present with them. Focus on the student’s words and body language. By doing so, you will show that you appreciate them and that they matter.

#2 Reflective Skills

These skills will help you review what the student said and check your understanding. Reflective skills include—paraphrasing and reflecting feelings.

  • Paraphrase/reflection of content – Simply repeat to the student what they said using your own words. You can use phrases like, “So, you are saying…” or “Let me check to see that I am hearing you. You said…” 
  • Reflection of feelings – When talking with a student who is upset, have you ever said something like, “Wow. It sounds like you are feeling really overwhelmed.”? This genuine reflection of feeling can be very powerful.

And know that it is okay to choose the “wrong” feeling word. Your student will correct you! For instance, our student in the above hypothetical may respond, “No, I am not overwhelmed. I am furious.”

This is good information to have. You can work with this! Your reflection of feelings could be the permission they feel they need to explore their feelings and will help them to feel validated. 

Think of reflective skills as your time to review

#3 Advanced/Solution Skills

Advanced/solution skills help you begin problem-solving while still validating your student’s feelings. Problem identification and solution-focused brief therapy techniques are examples of advanced solution skills. 

  • Problem identification example – It sounds like you are worried about…
  • Solution-focused brief therapy scaling question example – If 10 is the most anxious you have ever been and 1 is the most relaxed, what number do you feel your anxiety is at right now? What number would you like to be at?
  • Solution-focused brief therapy miracle question example – “Imagine that while you were sleeping tonight a miracle happened. While you slept, (insert problem here) mysteriously disappeared. When you got out of bed the next morning, what would be the first thing you noticed that would clue you in that a miracle had happened?”

Advanced/solution skills are examples of open-ended questions that encourage the student to dig deeper into their concern. Try to avoid close-ended questions, which are questions that can be answered with short, simple answers, such as “yes” or “no.” 

Pro Tip: It is important to also note cultural considerations in our communication. What are the identities of your students? Do you know which identities are salient to them? If you do not know, then go ahead and ask! What are your identities? What identities do you share in common with your students and which ones differ? 

Wrap-Up

Which microskill(s) will you practice? Try incorporating your chosen mircoskill(s) into your everyday conversations with students, friends, and family. I promise you will see (and hear!) a difference! Happy listening!