What if there was a way to meet the needs of all children in the classroom while simultaneously cultivating social-emotional and cognitive growth in our students? If you asked any teacher this question, their answer would most likely be that they would wholeheartedly jump on the opportunity. While there is no magic solution that ensures that we are meeting all of the individual and diverse needs of our students, bringing empathy into the classroom can bring us pretty close.
What is empathy?
The Oxford dictionary defines empathy as “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.” This is the idea of “putting ourselves into the shoes” of another, and having a fundamental understanding of how they are feeling. Empathy requires cognitive skills and perspective taking, and can lead to greater connection with others and prosocial behavior.
“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel”- Maya Angelou
When used in classroom settings, studies have shown that teachers who teach empathy and model empathetic behavior create students who are more open-minded, able to effectively perspective take, are better problem solvers and have greater cognitive flexibility.
In addition to positive cognitive benefits of using empathy in the classroom, empathy also expands a teacher’s ability to meet the needs of a range of students. According to NCES (2016), schools are becoming more diverse and are expected to continue to increase in diversity. Teachers, now more than ever, are faced with meeting the needs of students whose backgrounds may be different than their own. The ability to put yourself in the shoes of another is imperative when teaching students from such varied backgrounds and to better understand each child and meet their educational needs effectively.
How can we bring empathy into the classroom?
Bringing empathy into the classroom and expecting students to treat others with respect begins with ourselves. We must model empathy, and practice what we preach. Understanding our own personal biases, expanding our cross-cultural competency and becoming aware and sensitive to the student’s personal histories, beliefs and traditions is a great way to start. How can you do this? Take advantage of professional development opportunities, ask questions in a nonjudgmental manner, and do research.
In addition to practicing and building your own capacity for empathy towards students, there are also ways to directly teach empathy in the classroom. Here are some ideas:
Make social-emotional learning a regular part of curriculum
- Ask students how they are feeling, and encourage them to talk about their feelings with each other
Offer a safe environment to discuss similarities and differences
- The benefits of diversity should be encouraged
Bring books/videos that demonstrate empathy and compassion
Reflective journal prompts
- Can be altered depending on age but some examples:
- Were you nice to someone today? How did this make the person feel?
- What can you do to help someone today at school or at home?
Create real-life opportunities for empathy
- Empathy grows when we feel we have things in common with someone and feel more connection. Have students: Interview a classmate they don’t usually talk to, eat lunch with someone new, send positive messages to classmates
- Ask simple questions which require students to take the perspective of others regularly and understand emotions (i.e., How did that make you feel when that happened? How do you think that made him/her feel?)
In summary, not only is empathy beneficial in the classroom, but it is just as valuable in our personal lives.
Bernhardt, B. C., & Singer, T. (2012). The Neural Basis of Empathy. Annual Review of Neuroscience, 35(1), 1–23. doi:10.1146/annurev-neuro-062111-150536