Empathy is a powerful skill that allows you to see and appreciate another person’s perspectives – essentially helping you understand what it’s like to be in their position. Now more than ever, empathy is extremely important as issues of race and acceptance of other cultures are in the national conversation and often impacting students in the classroom.
“This isn’t just a nice thing to do; it’s an essential, active skill,” claims Homa Tavangar, writing for Edutopia.com. “It’s foundational to embracing differences, building relationships, gaining a global perspective, conducting richer and deeper analysis, and communicating more effectively.”
The science behind empathy
Experts are finding that a higher degree of empathy and emotional intelligence in students leads to better classroom performance and conflict resolution. “Our research shows that students with higher emotional intelligence are better prepared to manage their emotional lives so that they can focus, learn, and do their best in school,” according to Yale’s Center for Emotional Intelligence.
The Center’s RULER program was developed to help schools and districts integrate emotional intelligence training as part of the curriculum. In schools with an emphasis on emotional intelligence, children are taught how to manage such feelings as anger, disappointment, or shame that might otherwise cause them to hurt one another. “They learn how to be more emphatic and build positive relationships . . . these skills can strengthen the emotional climate of classrooms and reduce the incidence and severity of conflicts.”
Empathy is not necessarily an inborn skill, although babies as young as 18 months can show compassion and caring. Empathy is an ability that needs to be taught and practiced consistently in order for it to become second nature for students.
“You could argue that alongside our responsibility to equip our students with the academic skills to ace tests, utilize technology, and comprehend curriculum, we likewise need to consider how we can formulate our teaching strategies to undergird their character to become the most well-rounded and complete individual as they progress through their educational career,” says Jordan Catapano, writing in Teaching Strategies: The Importance of Empathy.
UC Berkley has The Greater Good Science Center that offers an online magazine, free online courses, and a summer institute for educators that teaches them the tools they need to develop a social-emotional program in the classroom. Another good source for teachers is the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning that offers free webinars and a library of documents and resources for teachers.
Above all, teaching empathy in the classroom begins the teacher and modeling appropriate responses to a variety of situations. Even when disciplining students, empathy is important to understanding the why and how.
“Empathy does not offer excuses for bad choices. As a teacher, sometimes empathy must be followed by a consequence, or by allowing some sadness to come into the lives of our students,” says Bob Sornson, in “Developing Empathy in the Classroom.” “But with empathy, we can give consequences with love rather than anger. By helping children learn empathy, we raise the odds they will have strong positive social relationships, truly care for others, and be able to set appropriate limits in their own lives without using angry behaviors or words.”