Students will work for you if they know you ‘get them.’
Talk to them. (Stay with generalizations so you don’t get into I.E.P. territory.). Encourage them to understand WHY they feel their feelings. Encourage them to think from the other person’s shoes. Introspection is a powerful tool. When students are aware of their feelings, why they feel them, and how to understand the situation from the shoes of everyone involved, they can then manage their emotions. It can help eliminate behavior issues with one simple, yet enlightening talk.
Empathy is critical.
They need to know you understand them on a very real human level. They need to know you are listening. Share your own stories as examples. (Of course, don’t ask them to share theirs.). They should just be observers and listeners. But when you start talking about this, you’ll see their faces light up.
Have students that seem like they don’t try? Are students that act out? Have students that don’t count out loud even after you ask them to do so? They do it for a reason and they’re not being malicious. Fix it by establishing an empathetic rapport. They’re drawing on past negative experiences and trying to find self-confidence in the only way they know how. Help be the change. Create an organizational culture that bolsters self-confidence and human understanding. Many students never have adults speak to them like an adult, let alone how to manage and become aware of emotions. Students need to fulfill the innate desire to create, discover, and feel understood.
You may be the only adult in their life that asks them how they’re doing. You may be the only person in their life that listens to them. The more they feel understood, the more self-confidence they get. The more self-confidence they get, the more they’ll put themselves out there to ‘try.’ The ‘try’ is often a terrifying thing for a student. Being asked to do what appears to be a harmless exercise like counting music out loud or performing in front of the ensemble can be an emotional trigger. They’re not being weak. They’re being human. It’s tough to be a young person going through body changes, peer pressure, home trouble, social awkwardness, and so on.
Music classes can be the venue of change.
Listen to them. Say things like “I understand”; “I hear you”. This doesn’t mean going out of your way to ask them a bunch of questions. Simply listen to them. Really listen to the words they’re saying. You’ll hear when someone needs an ear.
You don’t have to be their psychologist. You aren’t trying to be their friend. You’re simply trying to be one understanding human to another.
Injecting empathy into the group vibe will secure a true human connection and will have lifelong results for both teacher and student. After all, it’s the lifelong emotional impact of the musical experience that’s most important anyway. Do this and the music will take care of itself. Check out this research from a Stanford University study on the power of empathy.