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How To Talk to Students About Impact vs. Intent


When a student says something hurtful, it’s hard to not jump to shaming (“Why would you say something like that?”) or blaming (“Look, you made her cry.”). It’s hard to not negate their experience (“You’re actually going to try to tell me you didn’t mean anything bad by ‘Your face looks weird’?”) or jump to a consequence (“I don’t want to hear your excuse. You have a lunch detention.”)

I would often use a phrase with my students when they made mistakes that resulted in tricky emotional situations. It’s a gentle way to get students to de-center their own experience and consider the way their words or actions impacted someone else.

“Impact sometimes matters more than intent.”

I love this phrase because it didn’t invalidate the feelings or motivations of my students. It doesn’t demoralize or shame them. It simply asks them to momentarily drop their defenses and consider another person’s perspective and invites them to choose compassion instead of having it forced on them.

Here’s how I use this phrase in a situation with a student.

  1. First, establish privacy. Both the person who was hurt and the person doing the offending need privacy for this talk. I would check on the student whose feelings were hurt first, sending them to the bathroom or other private space if they needed time to collect themselves. Then I would start my discussion with the offending student in the hallway or in a quiet corner of the class.
  2. Validate what the student says their intentions were. “I believe you.” “I don’t think you meant to hurt his feelings.” “I trust that you say you didn’t know what that word meant.
  3. Remind them in an age-appropriate way that impact matters. Secondary students can understand “Impact matters more than intent,” but elementary students might need some help. “What you wanted to happen and what happened are different.” “_____’s feelings were hurt even though you didn’t mean to hurt them.”
  4. Invite them to consider that impact from another perspective. I usually start this question with Can you see how … ? “Can you see how your question may have sounded mean to her?” “If your math teacher didn’t know the context of your conversation, can you see how what they overheard would have been worrisome?”
  5. Ask the student what should be done to make it right. Here’s where you ask the student how we make this right. Use your best teacher judgment to determine whether an in-person apology or a written apology is more appropriate, and when an additional consequence or opportunity for further reflection might be necessary.

Here’s what this phrase looks like in three different situations.

When they hurt another student’s feelings:

Student: “But I didn’t mean to hurt her feelings! I thought it was cool that her haircut looks like a helmet.”

Me: “I don’t think you were trying to hurt her feelings. But impact matters more than intent. Her feelings were hurt even though you didn’t mean to hurt her. Can you see how your comment might have made her feel different in a not-so-good way? How do you think you could make it right?”

When they say something inappropriate to someone who isn’t a student:

Student: “But how was asking what kind of car the symphony conductor drives an inappropriate question?”

Me: “It’s not an inappropriate question in itself, and I believe that your interest was genuine. But the impact of your question matters more than the intent behind it. Can you see how asking that question after he’d just shared about his experience overcoming adversity in becoming a world-famous conductor might make it seem like you either weren’t listening or had no interest in anything he’d said? Do you think you should send him an email clarifying that his talk meant a lot to you, or do you have another idea?”

When they say something inappropriate to me:

Student: “But your stomach does look like it has five babies in it! I didn’t mean it in a nasty way.”

Me: “I don’t think you meant it in a nasty way. I know you and I know you have a good heart. And my one-baby pregnant belly is gigantic! But I want to prepare you for how that comment might hurt the feelings of other people you might encounter. The impact of your comment can matter more than your intent behind it. Can you see why pointing out that someone’s body looks way different than you think it should might make them feel embarrassed? What ideas do you have for avoiding making a comment like this in the future?”

In my experience, if I want any kind of meaningful change from the student doing the offending, they need to first believe that I believe them. They need my gentleness and compassion. They need to know that the person guiding them is a person who believes in their goodness, even though they messed up. This phrase helps them reflect on a single choice, not on their personhood.

Also, two out of three of these student comments were real. I will leave you to guess which was which.

What do you think about this strategy? Tell us in the comments!

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