Care in the Middle Level Classroom

A caring classroom environment is a key factor in students’ success in school (Kohn, 2005; Noddings, 1995). Young adolescents, in particular, need the support and encouragement of an adult advocate who cares and supports them academically and personally (National Middle School Association [NMSA], 1982, 2003, 2010). Effective middle level classrooms provide meaningful relationships that promote student learning. This summary reviews the literature concerning the importance of empathy and care in the middle level classroom and provides practical suggestions for creating a caring classroom environment.

Tenets of This We Believe addressed:

  • Organizational structures that support meaningful relationships and learning.
  • Every student’s academic and personal development is guided by an adult advocate.

The importance of appropriate education for young adolescents based on their unique needs is well documented by This We Believe (NMSA, 1982, 2003, 2010) and other reports concerning middle level education (Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development [CCAD], 1989; Jackson & Davis, 2000; National Association of Secondary School Principals [NASSP], 2006). In Turning Points (1989), the CCAD referred to the disjunction between the structure of schools and the intellectual and emotional needs of the young adolescent learner. It noted a crucial need for young adolescents (ages 10–15 years) to develop durable self-esteem and sense of belonging as part of a valued group. The CCAD also stressed the need for teachers who understand this group of students: “Every student needs at least one thoughtful adult who has the time and takes the trouble to talk with the student about academic matters” (p. 38). Similarly, the authors of This We Believe (NMSA, 1982, 2003, 2010) and Breaking Ranks in the Middle (NASSP, 2006) recognized the need for each student to be known by and connected to at least one adult in the school. Erb (2006) argued for the importance of care and support for the individual student as part of the middle level concept. Additionally, middle level researchers found that small communities of learners, fewer transitions throughout the day, and advisory programs help to create a climate of care and connectedness (Brown, 2004; Erb, 2006: Knowles & Brown, 2000; Schmakel, 2008). To meet the challenges posed in This We Believe and Breaking Ranks, it is imperative that teachers be skilled at creating a caring classroom environment to meet the unique needs of young adolescents.

Care and Learning

Numerous authors note the relationship of care as it relates to students and their success in school (Kaplan & Owings, 2000; Kohn, 2005; Noddings, 1995, 2005a; Ryan & Patrick, 2001; Splittgerber & Allen, 1996). Noddings (1995, 2005a) emphasized that (a) learning is more than producing high test scores, and (b) students have needs that must be met before they can be academically successful. Feeling cared for is one such need (Kaplan & Owings, 2000). Kohn (2005) also noted that students who feel their teachers accept and care for them are more interested in learning, and they are, therefore, more likely to be successful. Likewise, Ryan and Patrick (2001) tied student motivation and success to settings that are caring and supportive. Their research examined the perceptions of 233 eighth grade mathematics students concerning the social environment, motivation, social efficacy, engagement, behavior, and achievement in the classroom. Results indicated that students considered teacher support, interaction, and mutual respect as important to their motivation to do well in the classroom.

Additionally, evidence reveals that high-stakes testing has a negative effect on students including lack of motivation, stress, and fear of failure (Kaplan & Owings, 2000; Kohn, 2005; Noddings, 2005a, 2005b). As teachers become more stressed by and focused on teaching skills needed for success on the high-stakes tests, there is an increased need for developing caring relationships with students (Paciotti, 2004; Wellman, 2006).

Care and Empathy

Noddings (1984) defied care as “stepping out of one’s personal frame of reference into the other’s point of view, his objective needs, and what he expects of us” (p. 24). Noddings (1995) goes on to describe teachers who have good people skills, are sensitive, make students feel important, understand their students’ world, create a safe environment, and give students a feeling that someone cares for them. Understanding the world of students requires the disposition of empathy. Rogers (1959) described empathy as the ability to perceive and capture the feelings or frame of reference of another without joining or losing the “as if” condition. In other words, empathy requires one to take another’s perspective (Kohn, 1990). Kohn (1990) suggested that teachers could demonstrate the perspective-taking process—empathy—by asking the question “How would I like it if someone did that to me” (p. 112). This is an important question for teachers to ask themselves as they work with young adolescents. When students feel the support of a caring and empathetic teacher, they grow emotionally, socially, and academically.

Caring in the Classroom

A number of researchers have identified the critical attributes of caring teachers (Goldstein & Lake, 2000; Hayes, Ryan, & Zseller, 1994; Tosolt, 2010; Williams, 2011). Care can be demonstrated by verbal expression of high expectations, an encouraging pat on the back, and empathetic comments concerning individual student’s feelings (Howard, 2003; Noddings, 2005a; Williams, 2011). Tosolt (2010) surveyed 50 middle level students to determine what teacher behaviors they perceived as caring. The students completed a Likert-style survey with statements about caring teacher behaviors including: (a) listens to my side of the story, (b) encourages me to keep trying, (c) writes helpful comments on my papers, (d) protects me, (e) intervenes when other students pick on me, (f) makes sure I understand directions, (g) insists that I do my best work, (h) smiles at me, (i) greets me warmly, (j) asks my opinion, and (k) hugs me. In another study, Williams (2011) administered a teacher empathy scale to 60 middle level teachers. The students of the participating teachers were also given a student perception of care survey. Results identified 10 teachers who were highly empathetic and whose students felt cared for in the classroom. Subsequently, the 10 teachers were interviewed concerning how they created a caring classroom environment. Observations were also conducted to determine what actions or behaviors occurred in the classrooms where the teacher is highly empathetic and perceived as caring by students. Williams grouped the actions or behaviors into five major categories: (a) knowing and showing an interest in students, (b) encouraging and instilling confidence in students, (c) showing physical affection, (d) demonstrating flexibility and adaptability, and (e) sharing yourself and building community. These five categories are described in more detail in the following sections.

Know and show interest in students

Students appreciate a teacher who makes an effort to get to know them and shows an interest in their lives outside of school. This is consistent with Turning Points (CCAD, 1989) which stressed that each child should have at least one adult who knows and shows interest in him or her academically and personally. Teachers are perceived as caring when they address students by name, greet students as they enter the classroom, ask about the child’s activities outside of school, and notice when the student is ill or upset. Listening to students and their opinions is an important part of getting to know and understand students (Nowak-Fabrykowski & Caldwell, 2002; Williams, 2011). One teacher in Williams’ (2011) study shared, “Listen to them. They are excited about everything and want to tell you everything. You have to be a good listener. They want to tell you their story, and it is important” (p. 54).

Encourage and instill confidence

Both Tolsolt (2010) and Williams (2011) referred to caring teachers as ones who encourage students to do their best while boosting their confidence. Teachers were observed giving positive feedback to students, checking to see if the students need assistance, giving reassurance and encouragement, and acknowledging student strengths. Caring teachers were observed walking around, helping students, and redirecting rather than criticizing work. Students who receive encouragement and positive feedback are motivated to work harder and are more likely to be successful. Caring teachers help students understand that they are capable by giving positive feedback and avoiding negativity and criticism; they build confidence (Williams, 2011).

Physical affection

Additionally, Tosolt (2010) and Williams (2011) noted the importance of physical affection in demonstrating care to students. Hugs were listed as one of the common teacher behaviors demonstrated by caring teachers in Tosolt’s study. Likewise, a number of teachers in Williams’ study mentioned the importance of physical affection such as handshakes, pats on the back, high fives, and side hugs. Teachers were observed talking to students about their behavior or work with their hands resting on the shoulder of the students. These small gestures of affection demonstrate to students that the teacher cares.

Flexibility and adaptability

Modifying lessons for individual learning styles and making learning fun are important to creating a caring classroom environment (Protheroe, 2005). Similarly, Williams (2011) identified flexibility and adaptability as important in creating a climate of care. Examples of flexibility include being open to questions, listening to students’ opinions, and providing meaningful, relevant instruction. Caring teachers are accessible to students, open and receptive to questions, take time to re-teach concepts, and provide multiple ways to address problems. Students appreciate it when their teacher engages them in meaningful activities, listens to their opinions, and is willing to make adjustments (Tosolt, 2010).

Sharing yourself and building community

A final important category in creating a caring classroom is sharing yourself with your students and building community (Williams, 2011). Smaller learning communities, fewer transitions, and advisory programs help to create a climate of care and connectedness (Brown, 2004; Erb, 2006; Knowles & Brown, 2000; Schmakel, 2008). Teachers also create caring communities by sharing with the students, laughing at themselves, admitting mistakes, and apologizing when necessary. Students appreciate teachers who are willing to share themselves.


The teacher sets the tone of the classroom; therefore, demonstrating care for the students is an important factor in creating classroom climate (Goodlad, 1994; NASSP, 2006). With the implementation of No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB, 2002), schools have been challenged to meet accountability standards, and students have felt increased pressured to do well on the required tests. However, it is clear that students who feel supported and cared for in the classroom are more likely to be successful academically (Kohn, 2005; Noddings, 1995, 2005a; Ryan & Patrick, 2001). Lumpkin (2007) stated, “When teachers genuinely care, students sense it and respond by optimizing their commitment to learning and putting forth great efforts to reach their potential” (p. 160). Similarly, McMillan and Reed (1993) challenged teachers:

… to care, to have respect for them [students] as persons and as learners, to have the ability to get along with them, to listen to what they say without being intrusive, to take them seriously, to be available, to understand, to help and to provide encouragement, and to laugh with them. (p. 14)

This ability to understand and care for young adolescents is the key to success in the middle level classroom.


Brown, K. M. (2004). Loving the middle level. Principal Leadership, 4(5), 30–36.

Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development. (1989). Turning points: Preparing American youth for the 21st century The report of the task force on education of young adolescents. Washington, DC: Carnegie Corporation of New York.

Erb, T. O. (2006). Middle school models are working in many grade configurations to boost student performance. American Secondary Education, 34(3), 4–13.

Goldstein, L. S., & Lake, V. E. (2000). Love, love, and more love for children: Exploring preservice teachers’ understandings of caring. Teaching and Teacher Education, 16(8), 861–872.

Goodlad, J. (1994). Teachers for our nation’s schools. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Hayes, C. B., Ryan, A., & Zseller, E.B. (1994). The middle school child’s perception of caring teachers. American Journal of Education, 103(1), 1–19.

Howard, T. (2003). Alternative education programs in Milwaukee. Reclaiming Children & Youth, 12(2), 121–131.

Jackson, A. W., & Davis, G. A. (2000). Turning points 2000: Educating adolescents in the 21st century. New York, NY & Westerville, OH: Teacher College Press & National Middle School Association.

Kaplan, L. S., & Owings, W. A. (2000). Helping kids feel safe, valued and competent. The Education Digest, 66(3), 24–28.

Knowles, T., & Brown, D. F. (2000). What every middle school teacher should know. Westerville, OH: National Middle School Association.

Kohn, A. (1990). The brighter side of human nature. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Kohn, A. (2005). Unconditional teaching. Educational Leadership, 63(1), 20-24.

Lumpkin, A. (2007). Caring teachers: The key to student learning. Kappa Delta Pi Record, 43(4), 158–160.

McMillan, J., & Reed, D. (1993). Defying the odds: A study of resilient at-risk students. Richmond, VA: Metropolitan Educational Research Consortium.

National Association of Secondary School Principals. (2006). Breaking ranks in the middle: Strategies for leading middle level reform. Reston, VA: Author.

National Middle School Association. (1982). This we believe. Columbus, OH: Author.

National Middle School Association. (2003). This we believe: Successful schools for young adolescents. Westerville, OH: Author.

National Middle School Association. (2010). This we believe: Keys to educating young adolescents. Westerville, OH: Author.

No Child Left Behind. (2002, October). Highly qualified teachers and paraprofessional. Paper presented at the Student Achievement and School Accountability Conference, Washington, DC.

Noddings, N. (1984). Caring: A feminine approach to ethics and education. Berkley, CA: University of California Press.

Noddings, N. (1995). A morally defensible mission for schools in the 21st century. Phi Delta Kappan, 75(5), 365–368.

Noddings, N. (2005a). Identifying and responding to needs in education. Cambridge Journal of Education, 35(2), 147–159.

Noddings, N. (2005b). What does it mean to educate the whole child? Educational Leadership, 63(1), 8–13.

Nowak-Fabrykowski, K., & Caldwell, P. F. (2002). Developing a caring attitude in the early childhood pre-service teacher. Education, 123(2), 358–364.

Paciotti, K. D. (2004) Caring in Texas education: Middle school teachers’ perceptions of student-identified caring behaviors in a climate of accountability. Retrieved from Dissertations & Theses: Full Text. (Publication No. AAT 3132904).

Protheroe, N. (2005). Learning and the teacher-student connection. Principal, 85(1), 50–52.

Rogers, C. (1959). A theory of therapy, personality, and interpersonal relationships as developed in the client-centered framework. Journal of Consulting Psychology, 12(2), 95–103.

Ryan, A. M., & Patrick, H. (2001). The classroom social environment and changes in adolescents’ motivation and engagement during middle school. American Educational Research Journal, 38(2), 437–460.

Schmakel, P. O. (2008). Early adolescents’ perspectives on motivation and achievement in academics. Urban Education, 43, 723–749.

Splittgerber, F. L., & Allen, H. A. (1996). Learning and caring communities: Meeting the challenge of at-risk youth. Clearing House, 69(4), 214–216.

Tosolt, B. (2010). Gender and race differences in middle school students’ perceptions of caring teacher behaviors. National Association of Multicultural Education, 12(3), 145–151.

Wellman, N. S. (2006). Teacher voices of an ethic of care: A narrative study of high-stakes testing impact on caring. Retrieved from Dissertations & Theses: Full Text. (Publication No.. AAT 3221723).

Williams, D. M. (2011). Teacher empathy and middle school students’ perception of care. Herstellung, Germany: Lambert Academic Publishing.

Annotated References

Lumpkin, A. (2007). Caring teachers: The key to student learning. Kappa Delta Phi Record, 43(4), 158–160.

In this article, Lumpkin identified caring teachers as the key to student learning. She identified practical ways that teachers show care to students such as shared decision-making, supporting learning and helping students find meaning, and expanding students’ knowledge base, skills, and self-awareness as they take responsibility for their own learning. Lumpkin also noted that teacher’s belief in their students, the ability to engage them in learning, and becoming reflective practitioners are the keys to caring relationships and student learning.

Noddings, N. (2005a). Identifying and responding to needs in education. Cambridge Journal of Education, 35(2), 147–159.

In this article, Noddings questioned whether teachers really know what students need. It is assumed that educators and policymakers understand what students need and that they design the curriculum with that in mind. However, Nodding challenged this assumption. She referred to the these needs as inferred needs, and stated that educators often do not attend to the expressed needs of students. She also discussed care ethics, the nature of needs, and ways that schools might better identify and respond to those needs. Noddings suggested that teachers listen to their students and encouraged educators to allow students to pursue their individual interests and passions.

Noddings, N. (2005b). What does it mean to educate the whole child? Educational Leadership, 63(1), 8–13.

In this article, Noddings argued that schools must go beyond teaching the basic skills and focus on the whole child. She criticized the trend to focus on test preparation and argued that schools must focus on the aims of education including health, fundamental processes, home membership, vocation, citizenship, leisure skills, and ethical character. She advocated for a rich and varied curriculum with opportunities to engage in the arts. Noddings noted that recent practices have lead to a decline in motivation to learn and increase in student stress.

Tosolt, B. (2010). Gender and race differences in middle school students’ perceptions of caring teacher behaviors. National Association of Multicultural Education, 12(3), 145–151.

In this study, Tosolt investigated differences in 50 fifth through eighth grade mathematic students’ perceptions of caring teacher behaviors, specifically those relating to ethnicities. Students completed a Likert-style survey including statements concerning teacher behaviors. Students identified listening, encouragement to keep trying, helpful comments, protection, intervening on students’ behalf, and checking for understanding as teacher behaviors most valued by students.

Williams, D. M. (2011) Teacher empathy and middle school students’ perception of care. Herstellung, Germany: Lambert Academic Publishing.

In this mixed-methods study, Williams revealed the importance of empathy in creating a caring classroom environment and challenged teacher educators to provide training and field experiences that promote and enhance empathy and care in the classroom. With the implementation of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (2002) schools have been challenged by high-stakes testing and the need to maintain a highly qualified teaching force. The focus of discussion is often effective interventions and strategies to assist students to become academically successful. However, a number of researchers (Kaplan & Owings, 2000; Kohn, 2005; Noddings, 1995a, 2005c) have agreed that there is more to teaching and learning than is represented by scores on a single test. Authors such as Noddings (1984, 2005b) and Kohn (1990, 2005) have discussed the importance of an ethic of care in the academic success of students.

Recommended Resources

Davis, S. (2010) Wayside teaching. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Kohn, A. (2005). Unconditional teaching. Educational Leadership, 63(1), 20–24.

Noddings, N. (1992). The challenge to care in schools. New York: Teachers College Press.

Schmakel, P. O. (2008). Early adolescents’ perspectives on motivation and achievement in academics. Urban Education, 43, 723–749.


D. Michelle Williams is an assistant professor and coordinator of the middle level grades online program in the Department of Elementary Education at Stephen F. Austin State University. Her research interests include teacher empathy and students’ perception of care.


Williams, D. M. (2012). Research summary: Care in the middle level classroom. Retrieved [date] from

This research summary was adopted by the AMLE Board of Trustees, May 2012.