Conduct Empathy Interviews: Elevating Student Voices, So You Can Understand and Support Them
Leaders cannot be leaders if they do not understand the needs of those people they lead. If leaders do not show they care, how could others feel safe and protected… yet alone capable and valued?
– Kyxie Dominguez, Education Specialist
Empathy Interviews provide an opportunity to really understand a student, or group of students, by diving deeper than the surface-level question, “How are you?” and receiving the typical response, “I’m fine.”
These interviews inform intentional classroom and school-level action by elevating student voices and garnering a better understanding of student needs (SEL and well-being), and experiences (engagement).
This resource provides step-by-step instructions on how to conduct an empathy interview.
- Better understand a student’s/group’s experience around a particular space, environment, or situation
- Gain understanding as to what students’ needs are, and how you can support them
The below activity can be conducted as a focus group or individual interview.
Identify Interview Facilitators
These individuals should be comfortable speaking with students and able to develop a high level of rapport with participants. Interviewers can be neutral outside facilitators, or school staff who are not currently teaching students that participate in the group.
Identify Students to Interview
When designing and selecting students for empathy interview participation, recruit students with diverse perspectives and school experiences. This should include:
- Students from each different program and/or school group.
- Representative sample of students across multiple criteria (e.g., grade level or span; school; student subgroup, such as English language learners or special education; GPA; experience with their program).
- Try to ensure that focus groups are demographically representative of the community, taking into consideration characteristics such as race/ethnicity, gender, experience with program, etc.
- To allow all participants multiple opportunities to contribute to the conversation, groups should not exceed 8–10 individuals (for Zoom/online focus groups, we recommend no more than 5-6 students).
- If possible, the group moderator should be accompanied by a dedicated note-taker so that all responses can be recorded. Audio recordings work best, and can be transcribed, thus allowing for more accurate data and quotes.
- Students should be given the opportunity to provide written and verbal assent/consent to participate. Check with the district to see if parental consent is also required.
Conduct the Empathy Interview
- Welcome: Explain the purpose of the focus group/interview. Provide appropriate guidelines.
- Introduction: Provide an icebreaker, or intro activity.
- Dive into questions (see sample questions in the tab below): This should be an intentional conversation focused on a positive student experience.
- Wrap up: Thank the person or group for their time and thoughtful discussion. Provide a way for the student(s) to share any final thoughts or comments they may think of in the coming days.
Empathy Interview Suggestions
The facilitator should become familiar with the thematic questions ahead of time. Being able to conduct the interview like a discussion may make the students more comfortable responding than asking questions in a list-like format.
- Avoid asking questions that can be answered with “yes/no.”
- Follow up on answers that need clarification or that might lead to more in depth discussion, using phrases like “Tell me more about that.”
- Avoid injecting personal opinion or strong positive/negative reaction to answers.
- Encourage participation by all students, paying attention to students who don’t answer right away by giving them a chance to speak up.
- Avoid requiring students to answer, especially if they seem uncomfortable.
- Try to get students to provide specific examples, when possible.
- Provide students with the opportunity to follow up individually or add information they thought about after the interview is over.
- See the TIPS section below for more suggestions.
- Capture verbatim notes with as much detail as possible.
- Look for trends and what causes the trends.
Build and Implement an Action Plan
Brainstorm ways to enhance the student experience based on the information garnered from the interviews. Identify potential projects, activities, committees, etc. to address common student needs that emerged.
- Be a little vulnerable during an interview in order to gain trust. This shows you are willing to share, and trying to relate, but don’t forget the main focus is on the student, or group.
- Don’t suggest answers to your questions. This can unintentionally get people to say things that agree with your expectations.
- Don’t be afraid of silence: Often if you allow there to be silence, a person will reflect on what they’ve just said and say something deeper.
- Look for inconsistencies: Sometimes what people say and what they do (or say later) are different. Gracefully probe these contradictions.
- Be aware of nonverbal cues: Consider body language and emotions.
- It helps to put the pen/pencil and paper down and have a natural conversation. Student’s can feel really tense when it seems as if you’re documenting their every word.
- Why did you decide to enroll at (school)?
– What did you think it would be like versus what you are experiencing?
– Has it met your expectations? Why/why not?
– What would you say about the school climate at this school?
- Tell me more about the program/course/pathway in which you are enrolled.
– What do you like best AND what is challenging (curriculum/learning, schedule, logistics) about your program?
- Please describe your experience with your classes and teachers.
– Does the material you cover in your content area classes connect to and make learning better in your program? Why/why not?
- What have you learned at (school) that you think will most affect your ability to get a job after high school?
- What resources and/or support do you think would be helpful to have to better prepare you for life after high school?
Empathy Interview Emphasis
- What does it mean to “feel like you belong” at school?
- Do you feel like you belong at (school name)? Why/why not?
– If yes: Can you think of another student who might not feel like they belong? What could we do to help them feel more connected to (school name)?
– If no: What do you think would help you feel more connected to (school name)?
- What makes (or would make) your time at (school name) meaningful?
- Tell me about a time at (school name) when you were motivated, inspired or driven. (Or not motivated)
- Do you feel like you have a say in what or how you learn at (school name)?
– If yes: Describe a time when you had the ability to direct your own learning.
– If no: In which areas would you like to have more input?
- Have you had opportunities at (school name) to express your opinion and be heard?
– If yes: Describe a time when you were able to express yourself.
– If no: Describe a time when you wish your voice would have been heard.
- Do you feel valued by your teachers and fellow students at (school name)? What contributions are you able to make to your fellow-students, your teachers, your classes or the program in general?
– General follow-up: Complete this sentence: “I feel an important part of something special when…”
- Describe some of your most impactful experiences at (school name). (They could be positive or negative experiences.)
- Do you have any other suggestions on how student experiences might be improved at (school name)?