Call it putting yourself in another person’s shoes, or appreciating differences or simply imagining how someone else feels in a given situation. This is empathy. But, why do we care?
Unless you align yourself to The Grinch (at the story’s open, of course), it is a natural emotional response to care when you see another person suffering or experiencing some type of emotional pain over life’s challenges. If you’re on the opposite end of the green guy’s spectrum, you may even have an emotional response to another person’s positive life event. Oftentimes, we can relate because we’ve experienced something similar ourselves, know someone else who did, or can imagine what it must feel like to be in a specific situation.
There is, in fact, a science to why we care.
In Medical News Today, author Ana Sandoiu shares that neurologists and psychologists have found we have ten very specific areas of the brain that allow us to feel empathy (or not, if any those areas of the brain are injured). While that gives us a scientific explanation, how can teachers transfer this lesson to the classroom?
Empathy is an important skill and must be both learned and nurtured from a young age. In positive family situations, empathy is first learned in the home as parents of multiple children teach the siblings to care for and about one another, to consider one another’s feelings before saying something mean or hurtful, etc. Even if one is an only child (like me), a parent or guardian can teach their child to consider her feelings, those of her family members, friends and anyone else around her. If empathy is not focused on early, it can be difficult for children to exercise the skill later in life.
Empathy Classroom Activities
This is why teachers and counselors play such an important role in instilling empathy in students. When students come together in group settings, either the classroom or even sports teams, they often represent differences students may not see in their homes. Whether that be socioeconomic, cultural, racial, ethnic, language, religious, and personal identity backgrounds, our students have so much to learn from one another when given the learning opportunity to focus on growing their understanding of each other.
Teach Value – Create a time to explicitly teach SEL skills to your students. We can elevate social and emotional skills by dedicating 20 minutes even once per week. You’ll begin to see your students recognizing the value because, like their other subject areas, there is a set learning time. Monday Motivation, anyone?
Some students may not immediately relate or understand why their peers respond to the same situation in a different manner. We can help our students exercise empathy so they learn to take time to observe, start positive conversation and attempt to understand versus being judgemental.
Teach Point of View – I often have to sit back and reflect on another’s point of view. Even as an adult, it can be difficult to manage my reactions. What is an example of this you can bring into your classroom? Teach students they don’t always need to agree or be on the same page with each other, but they should understand that not everyone sees things the way they do and learn to respond respectfully.
The absence of empathy and open conversation is largely responsible for the negative interactions that happen interpersonally between youth peers. Offer opportunities to alleviate these scenarios.
Teach Community Circles – Choose a “talking piece” or an object to pass around the group which signals that the holder has exclusive speaking rights. (Allowing your students to vote or pick the item can create additional buy-in.) Begin as the facilitator of the circle, introducing a topic or question that would benefit the class or small group. Once discussion builds, take a step back, allowing your students to serve as the leaders of the conversation.
When teachers take time in the classroom to explore the concept of empathy– what it is, why it’s important and how to exercise it on a consistent basis– schools, communities and even our students’ homes will be stronger places to live in and learn in. In other words, we all need to “care.”
EVERFI offers no-cost digital lessons for building empathy in your classroom:
- The Compassion Project (Grades 2-4)
- Character Playbook – Healthy Relationships (Grades 7-9)
- Honor Code – Bullying Prevention (Grades 8-10)
Wyjuana Montgomery has been with EVERFI for 3 years. She serves as the Senior Schools Manager in Oklahoma. Wyjuana is very active in her local and global community as a teen mentor, award-winning author and international motivational speaker. Most importantly she is a daughter, sister, wife and mother demonstrating empathy in her home and for those around her.