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Through the empathy lens: the impact of teachers beyond the books

This week, School Stream would like to acknowledge the impact teachers can have on students beyond the book, with a particular focus on empathy. But what does ‘teaching empathy’ look like in an educational context?

We’re here to support schools. Click here to see how School Stream can help your school streamline parent communication or read on for our overview of empathy in an educational context.

What do we mean when we say empathy?

Empathy is defined by Psychology Today Australia as  the experience of understanding another person’s thoughts, feelings, and condition from his or her point of view, rather than from one’s own”. However, understandings of empathy have expanded beyond the world of psychology and effectively gone mainstream (predominantly) via Brené Brown, who you may know from her TED talks (over 50 million downloads!) and popular Netflix special. She defines empathy a little bit differently. Citing the work of nursing scholar Teresa Wiseman, Brené Brown describes the four traits of empathy:

  • Being able to take the perspective of another person
  • Staying out of judgement
  • Recognising emotion in other people
  • Communicating the understanding of that person’s feelings.

Empathy, Brown says, is feeling with people. You can watch a (kid-friendly) animated video that illustrates these points for a young audience here

Teachers have a role to play in teaching empathy

It is well recognised that the influence of teachers extends both beyond the classroom and school hours. As Andrew Martin from the University of NSW says: 

Teachers are not a seven-hour Band-Aid that is undone once a child gets home from school: the teacher’s influence is unique and ongoing’. 

We all know that life lessons imparted by teachers extend well beyond reading, writing and arithmetic. When you think back on your own school days, your strongest memories will most likely be of the teacher who went the extra mile and helped you achieve something you didn’t think possible. So it makes sense that teachers are a vital part of a child’s team in communicating and demonstrating empathetic behaviour. Empathy is not a fixed trait, but it does take time to develop. It can be fostered, encouraged and cultivated via empathic siblings, adult carers and, of course, teachers. It really does take a village. 

Why is empathy important?

Who would like to be treated with kindness, respect and understanding? Pretty much all of us. Empathetic children will grow up to be empathic parents, work colleagues, and friends. As an added bonus, scientists think there is a very strong link between Social and Emotional Learning (with empathy as a core component) and the formula for academic success:

Cognitive achievement is 50 per cent of the equation, and social and emotional skills are the other 50 per cent’, says Vicki Zakrzewski, Education Director of The Greater Good Science Centre.

If that’s not enough to get you onboard the empathy-train, here are some other benefits to upskilling children in empathy:

  • It helps them to 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
  • It promotes good mental health
  • It promotes social harmony and can reduce the likelihood of bullying

You can read about the benefits of teaching empathy in more detail via the above link or take a look at this infographic for a swift empathy overview.

Teaching Strategies to encourage empathy

In between all the government-mandated teaching requirements and the subsequent documentation, how are teachers to fit empathy instruction into an already-crowded timetable? Here are some strategies from experts:

1. Encourage reading

A 2013 study found that reading literary fiction improves empathy. If you are looking for a resource guide, Bronte Coates of iconic Melbourne bookseller Readings has collated a list of children’s books for all ages that teach empathy here.

 2. Model how to value feelings

Children are always watching the adults in their lives to learn how to behave, and this is a key way they will learn empathy too. In a classroom context, teachers can be a good role model by recognising and acknowledging feelings and showing empathy when someone is upset or needs help.

3. Create a culture of empathy in the classroom

Find opportunities to practice empathy explicitly in your classroom. Create scenarios and opportunities to practice taking another person’s perspective and use “what would you do” style games or role-plays to 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 Luke when he fell over. I bet he remembers that and will want to help you next time.”

Empathy is a life skill and one of the key ‘soft skills’ that will serve children in almost every area of their lives, for the rest of their lives. When we work together, teachers and families can play a powerful role in setting children up for success.