If you have been teaching for some time now, you’ve likely seen a student cry in class. The reasons behind such tears are varied. The student might have had a hard day at work or school, be experiencing family conflict, a breakup, or even feel sad about the death of a loved one. However, for the sake of clarity, in this post, we are going to focus on students who’ve cried during class because of learning-related insecurities or struggles.
When I was teaching English, I saw students cry because they felt like failures or were overwhelmed by how they much they still had to master. Once or twice, a student had an absolute breakdown for not wanting to read aloud in class. So what can you do when a student cries in class? Here are 11 things to keep in mind.
First responses to student tears
1. Do not put the spotlight on the student. Most teachers would agree that acknowledging the student’s emotional state without being too obvious is better. And don’t be nervous or embarrassed yourself! A friendly, approachable, soothing attitude is usually more appropriate.
2. Let the student go to the restroom with a friend if needed and invite them to come back after drinking a glass of water and calming themselves down.
3. Ask the student to stay at the end of class to have a chat.Teachers have busy schedules, but even 5 minutes of conversation can lift a student’s mood and make them feel valued. Let the student know that crying isn’t something to be embarrassed about.
4. Don’t ask “why are you crying?” Instead, ask directly if it has anything to do with the class or how they’re performing. If it does, try getting a more specific picture. Is it overwhelm? Is it a lack of motivation? Is it feeling humiliated, pressured, or lost?
5. Show you can help while maintaining healthy boundaries. Provide an email address the student can turn to anytime they have questions, and let them know they can approach you without fear of what you might think or say. It is important that you foster a sense of community.
6. Book a meeting with the student to have a lengthy conversation and try to find some tools together to cope with the overwhelm. This is a great time to have a chat about the concept of failure and how crying, letting it all out, and getting back up again can be a healthy way to cultivate grit and resilience.
7. Take the opportunity to inspire students on how to proceed. Depending on the size of the class, the level you are teaching, and how informal the learning environment is, stories of others working through moments of stress and overwhelm can help. Maybe you yourself have one to share?
What if I teach a small class?
Some teachers only have three to eight students in a class. What happens when a student cries in front of their classmates, and everybody notices? Here, a teacher’s strategies might change a little, particularly if you teach young learners.
1. Maintain a soothing, calming attitude. Your voice tone is also crucial here, as well as your word choice. The other students are watching, so this is your opportunity to be a memorable role model!
2. Ask the student whether their hurt has anything to do with class or a specific exercise. From experience, other students are likely to jump in and show solidarity. In fact, the student might even open up more comfortably when other classmates start asking questions, rather than the teacher.
3. If appropriate, address issues like overwhelm, motivation, toxic self-talk, and perfectionism. Don’t just focus on the crying student—rather, take this as an opportunity to create a short open-class discussion and prepare students for future struggles. This will redirect the energy from that one student to a general conversation that could make them, and others, feel less alone.
4. Once again, declare yourself available to help and book a private meeting with the student. Just like in the context of a larger class, tell students you are always there to support them, answer their questions and walk alongside them. You are not their enemy, but their mentor and counsellor. Make sure you meet with them privately to get to the bottom of how they really feel and come up with a solid strategy.
Have you ever had a student cry in class? How did you act, and what do you wish you had done differently? What suggestions and recommendations can you give other teachers?