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Sun, B.; Wang, Y.; Ye, Q.; Pan, Y. Associations of Empathy with Teacher–Student Interactions. Encyclopedia. Available online: (accessed on 14 June 2024).
Sun B, Wang Y, Ye Q, Pan Y. Associations of Empathy with Teacher–Student Interactions. Encyclopedia. Available at: Accessed June 14, 2024.
Sun, Binghai, Yaoyao Wang, Qun Ye, Yafeng Pan. "Associations of Empathy with Teacher–Student Interactions" Encyclopedia, (accessed June 14, 2024).
Sun, B., Wang, Y., Ye, Q., & Pan, Y. (2023, May 22). Associations of Empathy with Teacher–Student Interactions. In Encyclopedia.
Sun, Binghai, et al. "Associations of Empathy with Teacher–Student Interactions." Encyclopedia. Web. 22 May, 2023.
Associations of Empathy with Teacher–Student Interactions

Teacher empathy has garnered increasing recognition as a pivotal component of teacher–student interactions and a notable determinant of student achievement.

interpersonal neuroscience teacher empathy teacher–student interaction

1. Introduction

Teaching and learning are highly social. Within the education setting, teacher–student interaction stands out as one of the most fundamental and necessary form of interpersonal communication [1]. Teacher–student interaction refers to the various forms, natures, and degrees of engagement that occur between teachers and students [2]. This interaction not only triggers students’ cognitive development and social growth but also benefits teachers’ professional growth [2][3][4]. The quality of teacher–student interactions depends on their ability to understand each other’s intentions and emotions (i.e., empathy).
Teacher empathy is the ability of a teacher to understand and share the feelings and perspectives of their students [5]. This includes the teacher’s capability to recognize and address their students’ emotional needs, and adjust their teaching and guidance accordingly. Teachers who exhibit empathy are better equipped to discern a student’s negative emotions, such as sadness over a poor grade or boredom with a particular learning task, from their facial expressions [6]. Creating a positive emotional atmosphere in the classroom, responding sensitively to the emotional, social, and academic needs of students, and taking into account their interests are all components of high-quality interactions that contribute to teachers’ ability to provide emotional support and manage their classrooms effectively [7]. Therefore, teacher empathy is a key factor shaping the quality of teacher–student interactions and cultivating positive teacher–student relationships.
Although recent research has explored the link between empathy and teacher–student interactions, there are some limitations when it comes to explaining their underlying mechanisms and research methodology. It is unclear how empathy differs from other psychological factors. While some researchers define empathy as the ability to understand other’s emotional experiences [8], independent of theory of mind (ToM), others argue that empathy and ToM share common brain regions [9]. In accordance with Baron-Cohen and Wheelwright, researchers define empathy as including both affective and cognitive components: affective empathy, which describes the ability to vicariously share a target’s internal state, and cognitive empathy, which refers to the understanding of target’s internal states without sharing them [10].
In addition, by relying solely on questionnaires and behavioral experiments, traditional research on teacher empathy has provided limited understanding of the cognitive and neural mechanisms involved, and how they impact behavior. However, with the use of neuroscience technologies such as electroencephalography (EEG) and functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS), researchers are now able to directly observe brain activity [11][12][13], providing more immediate and objective physiological evidence. This approach can further reveal the cognitive neural mechanisms involved in teacher–student interaction, and enhance the understanding of teacher empathy [14][15][16][17][18].

2. Theoretical Considerations for Empathy and Interpersonal Interaction

To understand how teacher empathy impacts teacher–student interactions, researchers first scrutinized past theoretical considerations pertaining to empathy and general interactions. General interactions refer to the overall communication and behavior between individuals or groups in a social encounter [19][20]. The analysis centered on four broad strains of models, namely the shared intentionality theory, theory of mind, the perception–action model, and perspective taking.
Shared Intentionality Theory is a psychological framework that elucidates how people can effectively collaborate and coordinate their actions towards a common goal [21]. This theory posits that individuals can synchronize their behavior and interact more effectively by sharing mental states such as intentions, beliefs, and desires. Research has shown that interpersonal synchronization based on shared intentions can substantially enhance cooperative behavior [22]. When teachers possess high levels of empathy, they endeavor to align their conduct with that of their students, which results in an improved quality of teacher–student interactions and greater efficacy of the teaching process.
Theory of Mind (ToM) pertains to the ability to grasp and deduce both one’s own and others’ mental states, and to use this information to predict and clarify their actions [23]. ToM and empathy are key aspects of interpersonal communication, allowing individuals to perceive and understand the actions of others. Although certain research suggests that empathy does not necessarily require ToM [8], others propose that empathy and ToM share common brain regions [23]. ToM involves the cognitive process of recognizing and evaluating the emotions of others, while empathy involves the capacity to understand the emotional experiences of others [24].
Perception–Action Model (PAM) proposes that empathy is a product of the evolutionary development of species, as demonstrated by the ability of non-human social mammals such as apes and mice to imitate others [25]. This imitation helps individuals to learn and respond appropriately in dangerous situations, and encourages pro-social behavior among peers. The PAM suggests that when an individual observes the behavior of others, they will create a mental representation of their own experience with that behavior, and simultaneously imitate it.
Perspective Taking (PT) is the ability to distinguish between one’s own viewpoint from that of others, and to infer and react to the perspectives of others using relevant information [26]. It has been suggested that this essential aspect of empathy is crucial for teachers, and has a significant impact on the teacher–student relationship and students’ academic performance [5].
To summarize, it can be inferred that empathy is a multifaceted psychological process that encompasses cognitive, emotional, and behavioral factors. However, none of the presented theoretical considerations offered a complete understanding of teacher empathy in the context of teacher–student interactions. The PAM proposes that empathy arises from passive and automatic imitation, while the ToM and PT models concentrate primarily on the cognitive aspect and do not fully address the emotional aspect. Furthermore, in teacher–student interactions, it is insufficient for teachers to only understand and empathize with their students’ emotions, and they must also demonstrate appropriate behavioral reactions to them.

3. The Impact of Empathy on Teacher–Student Interaction: Single-Brain Findings

Echoing the theories previously discussed, recent years have also seen the use of advanced neuroimaging tools to provide neural evidence for empathy and teacher–student interaction.
The mirror neuron system (MNS) has been discovered and is believed to support the PAM theory, as it activates the same regions of the brain when people observe others’ actions as when they perform the actions themselves [27]. Affective empathy involves the MNS, specifically the inferior frontal gyrus (IFG), as well as the insula, anterior cingulate gyrus, and limbic system [28][29][30]. While MNS is likely to mediate the cognitive processes underlying interpersonal synchrony, it only provides a low-level mechanism for matching the self-state with the target state, mainly involving the motor system [31].
The brain region responsible for ToM is more strongly associated with cognitive empathy. The medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC), superior temporal sulcus (STS), temporoparietal junction (TPJ), and temporal pole (TP) are neural networks engaged in ToM and PT, while the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC) is a crucial brain region for cognitive empathy [32][33]. Despite their relationship, ToM and cognitive empathy are distinct concepts: ToM primarily involves cognitive control processing, whereas cognitive empathy involves both controlled cognitive processing and automatic processing, including emotional processing in the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), amygdala, and vmPFC [34]. The STS is a crucial component of ToM, as it allows teachers to make inferences about their students’ understanding and adjust their teaching approach accordingly. Furthermore, shared intentionality is closely related to cognitive empathy. Studies have revealed that the prefrontal cortex (PFC) plays a crucial role in shared intentionality, necessitating that individuals consciously synchronize their thoughts with others to enhance their collaborative behavior [35].
In brief, effective communication between teachers and students relies on both affective empathy and cognitive empathy, which activate different neural networks in the brain. Affective empathy involves the anterior insula (AI) and ACC, the mirror neuron system (MNS), while cognitive empathy is associated with brain regions similar to ToM, PT (PFC, in particular) and shared intentionality. Although research indicates that teacher empathy significantly impacts teacher–student interaction and is linked with the MNS, ToM, and other brain regions, there is still no systematic analysis of the mechanism of teacher empathy in the interaction. It remains unclear whether effective communication between teachers and students primarily relies on the MNS, PFC, or the coordination of various neural systems, and whether these factors apply to different aspects of teacher–student interaction.
To clarify these issues, a number of researchers have examined the impact of the teacher empathy on teacher–student interactions from a single-brain perspective. Takeuchi and co-workers used fNIRS to investigate how teachers and students collaborated when solving puzzles [36]. The results showed a significant increase in the activation of the PFC of teachers after providing prompts, which suggested that teachers deliberately understood their students’ responses during the interaction. Furthermore, the personality traits of teachers can affect the level of empathy present in teacher–student interactions. Using EEG, Zhu and colleagues investigated the neurocognitive mechanisms of pain empathy in teachers with strong or weak professional identities [37]. The results demonstrated that teachers with a strong professional identity had a substantial increase in N110 amplitude, which is an essential indicator of emotional sharing in pain empathy. This suggests that professional teachers are more adept at sharing emotions with students. In addition, a separate study has revealed that teachers with high emotional awareness abilities were able to rapidly perceive their students’ emotional cues and express emotions, which led to an increase in the amplitudes of N100, P100, and N170 [38]. These teachers also had the ability to identify their students’ emotional types, resulting in a rise in the amplitude of late positive potential (LPP) [38].
Unfortunately, conventional neuroimaging studies primarily focus on individual neurocognitive reactions and only measure the teacher’s (or student’s) brain activity in response to social situations, which makes it difficult to understand the complete brain mechanism that underlies the entire teacher–student interaction.

4. Findings from Dual-Brain (Hyperscanning) Studies

To surmount this constraint, studies using e.g., EEG and fNIRS have been integrated with the hyperscanning technique; these studies focus on the interdependencies of the brain activity of two or more individuals during an interaction, employing interpersonal brain synchronization (IBS) as a gauge of the interaction [39][40][41]. This research categorizes current hyperscanning research of teacher–student interaction into three groups: (1) the observation of perception and movement, (2) the assessment of information transmission and processing, and (3) the exploration of the collaborative process [42].


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