Empathy in Your Classroom: Why Should You Care?

Inside Out
Inside Out © Disney PIXAR

Which do you believe is more important, greatness or kindness? Not too long ago, the Harvard Graduate School of Education presented several children with this very question, and the results were a bit disconcerting. 80% thought achievement should take priority over kindness. In fact, further research indicated that today’s youth are three times more likely to believe their parents value good grades over good character. In hindsight this shouldn’t come as a surprise. Anyone can see how our culture places a big emphasis on success. Sports, politics, singing and dancing competitions, even videogames, kids are starting to learn that high achievers get the spotlight while nice guys finish last.

For teachers, these findings represent a difficult new challenge. While it may not be included on the syllabus, empathy plays a vital role in education. Empathy is what allows us to build connections with other people. It helps us take on their perspective, avoid rushing to judgment, recognize emotions, and communicate those emotions in a healthy way. Above all, empathy is an ability everyone (and I do mean EVERYONE) must be taught, because no one is born naturally empathetic.

Promoting empathy within a classroom ensures fewer behavioral problems, leads to overcoming barriers, and is ideal for combating a culture of bullying and harassment. The question is, how does one go about teaching empathy? Thankfully, it’s not as difficult as you might think. Here are five simple techniques for fostering empathy within students.

Show Them You Care

Students need to know they’re appreciated within the classroom. Granted, making sure every child feels valued can be a daunting task, but there are ways to show them you care without exhausting yourself. Choose one student for each day of the month and make sure that child receives encouragement on their given day. Offer them some words of affirmation, ask how their day is going, or share a story which speaks to their background. A small gesture is all it takes to let your students know they matter.

Teach the Subject

Don’t be afraid to inject empathy directly into your lesson. Is your class reading a book for Language Arts? Ask them how they would feel in the main character’s situation. Have them discuss character motivation while they read. Are students presenting a project to the class? Challenge them to consider things from the audience’s perspective. Empathy is a flexible subject, it can find a home in any curriculum.

Practice Kindness

We often praise students for their achievements, but how often do we recognize them for their kindness? Make your classroom a place where good grades and good works are rewarded equally. Take the opportunity to share stories of generosity or charity throughout the day, and celebrate compassion whenever you see it in the halls. Remember that kindness and empathy often go hand-in-hand. Teaching a student to practice one will allow them to find the other.

Acknowledge Emotions

If the movie Inside Out taught us anything, it’s that feelings can be tough to handle. Helping younger students understand and identify their emotions is a vital step to learning empathy, not to mention securing their mental health. Too many children end up as bullies because they can’t process their feelings and frustrations properly. As a teacher, you have the opportunity to help students channel their emotions into positive activity. Whether it’s through sports, studying, or coping mechanisms, be ready to help these children navigate the awkward corridors of their inner selves.

Model Empathy

Sometimes the best way to teach is by example. Students will be watching your interactions with others, and how you treat your colleagues will influence how they treat their peers. Remember to demonstrate respect to those around you. Be mindful of small actions children will be tempted to imitate, muttering under your breath, rolling your eyes, making faces when someone’s back is turned, etc. Never seek to embarrass, belittle, or punish. Instead, strive to honor, inspire, and reward those within your classroom. Don’t forget that your attitude could make all the difference.

What about you? What are some ways you promote empathy within your students? We welcome your comments! 
Content for this blog was drawn from the webinar Empathy in Your Classroom: Why Should You Care? with Terra Tarango.  Click here to view this webinar. 
Downloadable resources in this webinar include: Kindness Bingo