Teaching Empathy in Classrooms

Jul 11, 2018

When the discussion for education system serving a wider purpose than academics arises, focus is often laid on the overall development of a student, entailing physical, mental and emotional health. Emotional development plays a major role in assisting intellectual growth. One such important aspect of emotional development, holding the power to shape personalities, communities, and relationships alike, is empathy.

Empathy is the ability to understand someone else’s emotions, as if it were your own. It’s a more personalized approach to another individual’s feelings. It goes beyond noticing another’s feelings, permeating into the actual experience of the other person, by placing yourself in their shoes.

IQ alone, does not suffice for any individual’s success, let alone a student’s. A high EQ or emotional quotient goes a long way in paving the path for progress. Empathy is a key element of emotional intelligence. Being able to understand and relate to another individual isn’t just a trait, but a necessary skill, in a world as social as our’s today.

Why Should Empathy be Taught in Classrooms?

Most children are naturally more empathetic, but as they grow up and get into the ever challenging competitive culture, competition takes over emotions. Students tend to get more disconnected from others, when the world stresses them out with academic excellence, learning goals, comparisons and contests. However, empathy in students shouldn’t be looked at as a fading character trait, but an important catalyst in their emotional well-being. Educators must help students get in touch with their empathetic side, by teaching and cultivating empathy in classrooms, as it won’t just benefit students alone, but also bring about impactful changes around them.

Here’s a look at the several benefits teaching empathy in classrooms will bring along.

Better classroom culture -
In a class where students are taught to recognize and respect differences, students are more likely to bond better. Not only will this cultivate a positive classroom culture, the general environment of the classroom will turn into an open and encouraging one, where all students are comfortable to speak up, share ideas, thoughts, and participate in discussions without the fear of being put down or ridiculed.

Emotional Intelligence -
Emotional intelligence is the ability of managing one’s own emotions and recognizing and acting according to that of others too. Empathy helps students strike a balance between the two, helping them evolve their emotional intelligence.

Curb on bullying -
When students are taught to understand another’s emotions, as if it were their own, there are fewer occurrences of bullying and isolation at school. Empathetic students are more likely to build each other up, than bully and bring down seemingly weaker students. Empathy builds a more understanding, humane student community.

Leadership skills -
The greatest leaders of all times, are not the ones who created or sold products, services or promises, but the ones who knew how to work with people tactfully. Leaders who view people as priorities, are bound to lead more effectively. In fact, in the current times, empathy is seen as one of the most important leadership qualities. Students who learn to empathize, hold the potential of being better leaders.

Effective communication -
When students are better equipped to understand others emotions and reactions, they can communicate more effectively. Empathetic students are well equipped to know the right time and words to put across a point, in the most effective way, and ensure that they’re heard and understood. They also learn to be good listeners. This lays the foundation of able communication skills in them.

Accountability -
Students who practice empathy act responsibly. They hold themselves accountable for their own words and actions, and understand the impact it may have on another. Such students are thoughtful with their words and actions, and act responsibly.

Kindness -
Empathy encourages kindness. Students that are groomed to be more empathetic, won’t just make better classmates, learners and leaders, but better humans too.

Teaching Empathy in Classrooms -
Looking beyond a fixed curriculum, it is important to consciously include empathy in classrooms, to help students learn and practice the same. Here are a few methods to teach and practice empathy in classrooms.

Lead by example -
Teachers must set an example to students, with their own empathizing behavior, to help students practice what’s being preached. When a teacher is patient with students, understands their struggles, establishes a relationship with them for their greater good, students will learn to imbibe the skills in their own selves. Teachers that model good behavior, inspire students to do the same.

Get creative -
Share stories with students, on situations and scenarios where empathy can be practiced. Give them examples through captivating stories, give them a list of questions that stimulate their emotions, or arrange for workshops and role plays, book readings, or watching movies on interesting stories that discuss feelings, emotions, compassion and empathy. The more creative teachers get, the more interested students will be to learn and remember the values taught.

Book suggestions:

  • Wonder by R.J. Palacio
  • The Invisible Boy by Trudy Ludwig
  • Through Grandpa's Eyes by Patricia MacLachlan
  • What's Wrong with Timmy? by Maria Shriver
  • Stand in My Shoes by Bob Sornson

Discuss point of view -
Children may not be well aware about difference in opinions and differences in ideologies. Teach students about perspectives and points of view. Explain to them that different individuals may have different points of view, which may not match their own, and that it’s absolutely alright. Teach them to tolerate and accept different opinions and thoughts, and respectfully agree or disagree.

Place positive messages -
Place inspiring quotes, rules to remember, or positive messages in the class, where students can see them often, and be reminded to practice the same. These words can act as everyday reminders, and make an impact on their subconscious minds eventually.

Debates and discussions -
Conduct debates and discussions, and notice how students react to opposition, or different points of view. Bring their attention to any lack of empathy, and teach them to handle differences with patience and respect. With enough practice, students will soon find themselves being open minded and handling others’ thoughts and ideas respectfully, no matter how different it is from their own set of beliefs.

Shout-outs and appreciations:
Recognize good behavior and appreciate students often. Highlight instances where someone displays empathy, and have a generally appreciative environment in the class. This won’t just encourage students to be at their best, but also teach them to be expressive with positive feedback. Learning in an appreciative classroom, will also teach them to be more appreciative of people they come across, and notice the good in them.

Encourage students to form a group, or buddy up, especially with the ones holding very few similarities in nature and behavior as compared to them, for different learning assignments and class activities. The more they work with different individuals, the more they can learn to understand the emotions, journeys, thoughts and ideas of others, making them more accepting and open to differences.

Empathy for the Win

Schools that inculcate important emotions and behaviors such as empathy, kindness, compassion, and respect, don’t just churn impeccable learners, they bring about much needed changes at the grass root level, laying the foundation for a better community ahead.

- Jiji Tharayil