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Creative Approaches to Student Empathy

Many students, however, come to school from more difficult circumstances. They may live in poverty and come hungry. They may stay up late caring for siblings. They may be victims or witnesses of abuse. Even students who are not “at risk” may have endured unseen trauma. These students may come to school less ready to learn.

Schools are becoming increasingly aware that students with good social-emotional health are much more likely to engage at school. These schools understand that social-emotional learning is just as important to student success as academic learning. According to the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), “the best learning emerges in the context of supportive relationships that make learning challenging, engaging, and meaningful.”

Why Is Teaching Empathy Important?

Children who have been bullied or feel threatened in the classroom are too busy protecting themselves to stay focused on fractions or vocabulary words. Children who are hostile to their classmates may be dealing in silence with a problem they cannot solve on their own. Although classroom teachers are not always prepared to address deep-seeded emotional issues, they can provide a safe and welcoming environment for all students. By teaching empathy, teachers show students how to look at a situation through someone else’s eyes.

Students may not understand how their behavior affects their own academic success. They may also be unaware of the impact their actions and choices have on their classmates. Schools are now exploring research-based curriculum that equips classroom educators to teach empathy. These social-emotional learning programs help students learn coping skills, listening techniques and self-reflection. They focus on these five key factors of social-emotional learning: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills and responsible decision-making.

Social-Emotional Learning Programs

Roots of Empathy is a program started by Mary Gordon, an award-winning educator and parenting expert. Every three weeks for the entire school year, a local mother brings her infant into the classroom. As the class watches the baby explore and develop, they discuss what they think the baby is feeling. While describing the vulnerability of the baby, students become more aware of their own feelings. They recognize the empathy they feel towards the baby and may start to transfer those feelings to classmates and others. A similar program, Seeds of Empathy, targets preschoolers.

Start Empathy is another organization that promotes teaching empathy in the classroom. The program includes lesson plans, examples of successful classrooms, teaching tips and insight for teachers. The program involves three-steps:

  1. Prepare the classroom by providing a safe place where the teacher leads by example.
  2. Engage students in group play, storytelling, collective problem-solving and reflection.
  3. Ask students to identify how they are alike and different. Instill courage in students who support each other as they act on what they have learned.

Teaching empathy may seem like a specialized ability, reserved only for those well-trained in the theories of psychotherapy and emotional intelligence. However, schools are dealing with bullying and its effects on the lives of children both in and out of the classroom with alarming regularity. They believe that instruction in the classroom on a regular basis will help stem the tide.

Not all students are bullies themselves, but many are onlookers and bystanders. Students at every level must begin to accept some responsibility for keeping their classrooms and playgrounds safe for their peers. If we want them to play a part in the movement against bullying, we must provide the emotional tools they need to step in, challenge cruelty and protect other students.

Learn more about Lamar University’s Master of Education in Teacher Leadership online.


Education Week: Building Empathy in Classrooms and Schools

KQED News: Empathy: the Key to Social and Emotional Learning

Casel: Social and Emotional Learning and Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (2010)

Casel: Core SEL Competencies

Roots of Empathy: What Is Roots of Empathy?

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