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Teaching empathy for better learning outcomes

In the previous installment of this series on empathy in schools, we had a look at how teachers can manage their classroom better by adopting a more empathic mindset. As I promised last time, I am now delving into the concept of empathy in the classroom as a way to improve the learning process.

All of this and more can be achieved not only by modeling empathy as a teacher, but also by teaching students how to be more empathic. The good news is that empathy, as researchers have shown, is not a fixed ability that you either have or you don’t. Even better, it is a skill that can be taught, and research tells us that empathy training programs in schools actually do work.

But first, what does empathy look like in a classroom? For the sake of working with a goal in mind, I will define it as a generally welcoming and warm environment, in which students demonstrate prosocial behaviors, and help each other learn. Empathy creates an environment in which students have a sense of belonging the moment they walk into a classroom.

So, let’s get started with a quote that has become one of my all time favorites:

“Part of our formal education should be training in empathy. Imagine how different the world would be if, in fact, it were ‘reading, writing, arithmetic, empathy.’”– Neil deGrasse Tyson

Why teaching empathy works

Let’s get this out of the way: children learn by observing what adults do. Period. There is no going around in circles hoping that they do what adults say and ignore what they do. Aside from their home environment, where parents are responsible for teaching them what empathy means, school is where they spend most of their time, learning how to socialize, make friends, collaborate, solve conflicts, and so much more. That is why ignoring this aspect of their lives can be hugely detrimental to their development, especially since not all students benefit from a stable and healthy home environment. On a brighter note, your classroom could be their chance to learn healthy behaviors that will set them up for success later in life.

First, empathy is a real driving force for learning. Science tells us that children who have received more empathy also have a higher capacity for learning. Students that have gone through negative experiences at home also tend to be more stressed, which negatively impacts their school life as well. To put it more simply: children learn better when adults and their peers are kind and understanding.

Teaching empathy also strengthens self esteem and helps children be more confident in their academic skills. A general good and healthy opinion about themselves can help them get over failures much quicker and try new things, since students have a more realistic view of their strengths and weaknesses. They are more ready to lift up and help their classmates than engage in a continuous competition with them. While competition in itself is not bad, when you teach children to be very individualistic, they are less likely to ask for help, tend to keep their struggles to themselves and might feel ashamed when things don’t go their way.

According to Norma Deitch Feshbach and Seymour Feshbach, empathy directly influences academic achievement, particularly in subjects such as literature and history. Being able to imagine what Peter Pan must feel like, or the true intentions of a historical character makes them not only more empathetic, but also hone their critical thinking skills.

How to foster empathy in your classroom

Teaching empathy requires more than modelling empathy for students. They need to see empathy in action as well as get the opportunity to practice their skills. There are many ways to achieve this. As an example, the Start Empathy toolkit from Ashoka, an international organization that promotes social entrepreneurship, breaks the process into three large steps: prepare, engage, and reflect & act. Here are a few ideas inspired by their roadmap to empathy:

  1. Create a space where they feel safe and accepted

    While teaching empathy can start from the inside out, ignoring the physical environment can be a major roadblock. Here is where even the smallest details count. For example, do you sit among your students during class, or mostly teach from the front of the class? Does the classroom arrangement allow students to collaborate and make frequent eye contact? Does it invite them to collaborate and share ideas? Something as simple as arranging small group discussions more often can lead to big changes.

  2. Establish routines

    Students, and younger students in particular, need to have a routine to strengthen their belief that their environment can be stable and secure, especially if their home lives are not always this way. It is important to engage them from the beginning, such as establishing a routine, where you greet your students before class, or something that they can do together. For example, you can schedule a short icebreaker exercise from time to time to boost their energy. Routines can also be related to how you assign homework or incorporated into your lesson plans.

  3. Create an empathic culture

    Each classroom is unique, since it is made out of individual and unique students. If you think of your classroom as a microsociety with its own rules and culture, it gets much easier to spot where things can be improved. For example, a great exercise is to decide together, at the very beginning of the school year on different rules of conduct for the class. Asking questions such as “How do you want to be treated?” can turn into a powerful moment of reflection for each student.

  4. Incorporate activities that foster empathy

    One of the first empathy lessons that I remember in school was this: me and my colleagues had to walk around the classroom with our eyes closed. Simple, isn’t it? However, by asking the right questions, a teacher can base an entire lesson around empathy and understanding different points of view. Assigning collaboration projects, tasks, and group discussions is also a way to make sure that they have enough opportunities to practice their social skills. Teachers can also use activities that are built around storytelling as a way to foster empathy. Stories are very powerful since it makes us really connect to characters and feel what they feel.

    Read more: Two ways to integrate visual storytelling in K-12 instruction

  5. Model empathy, but trust them as well

    This is a trickier subject, but let’s put it this way: if you have a disagreement with your superior, do you call your mother to talk some sense into him or her? As adults, we tend to micromanage children while forgetting that children are also students that grow up into adults that… well, when the time comes will be ill equipped to deal with certain situations.

    Teachers should effectively teach students how to work together as a team. However, students should also be given enough space to solve their own conflicts, and learn how to socialize with each other, with the teacher acting as a guide or a mentor that also trusts them to do the right thing. The urge to “teach them a lesson” or worse, shaming children for failing to solve conflicts in a peaceful manner will not yield the desired results in the long run.

  6. Teach empathy in an online space too

    Teaching empathy nowadays should go beyond face to face interaction in the classroom. In fact, I would argue that promoting prosocial behaviors online should be a component of teaching empathy in general. Online interaction through social media, or your school’s LMS should be held to the same “standard” so to speak. For example, teachers should not be afraid to discuss more delicate matters such as cyberbullying, and show students how to be better digital citizens.

    Read more: DOs and DON’Ts of teaching digital citizenship

Final thoughts

Students learn better in a warm and welcoming environment. They also reap the full benefits of social learning by having better relationships with their peers. Empathy can improve academic performance, but also in the long run help students be better listeners, colleagues, and even digital citizens.