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Empathy is a life skill that will serve children in almost every area of their lives, for the rest of their lives. And it makes sense that teachers are a vital part of a child’s team in communicating and demonstrating empathetic behaviour. After all, the influence of teachers extends well beyond the school gate. This week on School Stream, we look at empathy, and what ‘teaching empathy’ looks like in the classroom.

We understand how busy your school office can be. See how School Stream can help you to streamline your parent communication in this quick video, or keep reading for our overview of empathy in the classroom.

What is empathy?

Empathy is described as being at the core of what makes us human. More specifically though, it is described in Greater Good Magazine (Science-based insights for a more meaningful life) as “… the ability to step into the shoes of another person, aiming to understand their feelings and perspectives, and to use that understanding to guide our actions.” There can be a bit of confusion between sympathy and empathy, but the easiest way to understand it – or explain it to your young charges – is that sympathy is feeling sorry for someone and empathy is feeling with someone. 

Try this (kid-friendly) video if you need a quick explainer in class.

Can empathy be learned?

In short, yes. Empathy is not a fixed trait but, as with learning any new skill, it does take time to develop. Luckily, it can be encouraged via empathetic adults, siblings, friends and, of course, teachers. In fact momentum has been building during the last five years to upskill adults in empathy in almost every field from medicine to business and leadership. It’s also described as a superpower in the future of work that will be considered essential in the coming years for the students of today.

Why is empathy important?

As renowned empathy researcher and educator Dr Helen Riess says: 

“Nourishing empathy lets us help not just ourselves, but also everyone we interact with, whether for a moment or a lifetime.”

Empathetic children will grow up to be empathic parents, work colleagues and friends. As an added bonus, empathetic kids and teens have better academic outcomes too: In 2012, researchers at McGill University in Montreal found a direct connection between empathy and learning capacity.  In summary, empathy is a win-win for everyone. Here are some of the other benefits of cultivating a culture of empathy in the classroom:

  • Empathy yields kindness.
  • It helps kids and teens build a sense of security and stronger relationships with other children and educators, positioning them well for learning.
  • It encourages tolerance and acceptance of others.
  • People with empathy have stronger personal connections and more meaningful, supportive relationships.
  • Empathy promotes good mental health, promotes social harmony and can reduce the likelihood of bullying.

Does empathy have a place in the classroom?

In an already crowded curriculum combined with an ever-increasing administrative load, how are teachers to find room for targeted empathy instruction? Here are some strategies from experts in the field, including a suite of suggestions for those who are working in a digital context.

1. Encourage reading

There are many studies to show that reading encourages empathy. It’s been credited with decreasing violence over the centuries, an increase in volunteering and charitable giving, and even the tendency to vote. Iconic Melbourne bookseller, Readings, has collated a list of books for students of all ages that focus on empathy, as has The Huff Post.

2. Model empathy in your own actions

Children learn empathy both from watching us and from experiencing our empathy for them, which is key to their wanting to adopt the same kind of behaviour when interacting with others. 

3. Create a culture of empathy in the classroom

Create opportunities to practice empathy in your classroom. Try taking another person’s perspective and use “what would you do?” style games or role-plays that model empathetic behaviour. Give praise and highlight how kindness can benefit everyone to foster more of that kind of behaviour in the future.

“That was so lovely of you to help Thomas when he was feeling lonely. I bet he remembers that and will want to help you next time.”

4. Empathy in the digital classroom

Empathy is generally understood more readily in interactions that are face-to-face, with cues via body language, voice, posture and gaze. This presents some real challenges for those teaching in a digital classroom, but research shows that empathy can still be cultivated using these strategies:

  • Have students regularly interact with each other, including through co-operative group activities or group work. 
  • Create opportunities for students to see and hear each other. The last thing we want is for students to get ‘video fatigue’ but students turning video on for an agreed amount of time each lesson can be a way to facilitate some contact between the class (and teacher) that leads to empathetic responses.  
  • Integrate a social aspect in your digital classroom. Schedule students to video call each other, check into class via an emoji or gif that reflects how the student is feeling, or activities relying on peer feedback are all ways to encourage empathy in action. 

Empathy is a powerful tool that can help you better understand what’s driving your students’ behaviour and find strategies to help. When we encourage empathy in the classroom, the results can only be positive.

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