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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

My most important back-to-school supply doesn't fit in a backpack, and it can't be ordered online. It's as essential as a pencil, but unlike a pencil, no technology can replace it. In a sense, like a fresh box of crayons, it can come in many colors. Better than the latest gadget, it's possible to equip every student with it, and even better, when we do, it can transform our world.

It's actually a "muscle" I've been working on all summer. It's empathy.

What's the Big Deal About Empathy?

Empathy starts with putting yourself in someone else's shoes -- a key step in understanding perspectives that differ from your own. This isn't just a nice thing to do; it's an essential, active skill. It's foundational to embracing differences, building relationships, gaining a global perspective, conducting richer and deeper analysis, and communicating more effectively. This skill is about as "21st century" as it gets. And like a muscle, empathy gets stronger and stronger with practice and can be developed by any grade school child. This is the muscle that allows you to stand up for something, not just stand by.

Also like a muscle, empathy is easy to forget, particularly when operating in a crisis mode, always putting out fires. As a personal example, my daughter had a recent health scare -- we discovered she was "skinny-fat." Her small dress size belied physical weakness and a low endurance level. This scare drove home the point that what may pass as fit on the surface might be masking deeper problems.

As we think about empathy in a well-functioning classroom, the physical state can serve as a metaphor for the health of the social-emotional learning setting: A classroom might look fine on the surface, doing OK on standardized tests, memorizing facts and figures, but its internal environment might remain weak. Weakness in this case is manifested where children lack the more subtle tools that build 21st century learning and global competency. Absent empathy, sincere kindness and unity, how useful are passing test scores for changing communities and an ailing world?

It goes farther than that. An empathic environment is a smarter environment. According to Vicki Zakrzewski, education director at the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley, "Scientific research is starting to show that there is a very strong relationship between social-emotional learning and cognitive development and performance." She adds, "Children as young as 18 months exhibit compassion, empathy, altruism, so these characteristics are part of who we are. But, at the same time, these skills have to be cultivated, because the environment can inhibit their development." In other words, empathy, like a physical muscle, is present -- but to manifest itself, it must be exercised.

A Fitness Plan for Building an Empathy Muscle

Back-to-school offers an ideal time to establish that your school or classroom prioritizes the active development of empathy -- that you'll take a stand for it.

A terrific starting point is offered by Ashoka, a nonprofit organization dedicated to encouraging social innovation around the world. Their Start Empathy initiative shares research, case studies and inspirational stories, and is building a network of Changemaker Schools committed to building empathic, encouraging environments at the elementary level. They've developed a road map for navigating a course to empathy -- suitable for any age. You might also consider it a three-step fitness plan to build the empathy muscle.

Step 1. Prepare

Create the conditions in which empathy can thrive.

  • Create a Safe Space: A trust-based environment is core to unlocking empathy.
  • Lead by Example: Consider what empathy looks like in your interactions, and model this.
  • Develop Emotional Competency: Understand and manage your own emotions in order to identify and interpret these emotions in others.

Step 2. Engage

Take action that suits your personality and interests. There is no fixed course of engagement, but here are a few key activities.

  • Group Play: Empathy begins on the playground, where imagination is allowed to run free, where kids learn to solve their own conflicts and enforce their own rules.
  • Storytelling: Stories challenge our preconceptions, enabling us to wear the shoes of those whose experiences are different from our own.
  • Immersion: By immersing ourselves in others' experiences, we learn to look beyond labels and stereotypes, and shift from projection to deep understanding.
  • Problem Solving: The act of collaboration builds empathy through shared challenges and victories.

Step 3. Reflect & Act

Action and reflection complete the circle, and form a vital distinction between "teaching to the test" versus internalizing knowledge and making a difference with that learning.

  • Identify Shared Values and Differences: As the Start Empathy road map explains, "Empathy means recognizing the shared humanity in others but also naming and appreciating differences. This is how we move from projection, where we imagine what we would do in someone else's shoes, to empathy, where we understand and respect the decisions of another."
  • Instill Courage: Go beyond praising the right behaviors -- proactively counteract the forces that stand in their way. This is where standing up, not just standing by, comes in.
  • Enable Action: Finally, create opportunities through which kids can put empathy into action and exercise pro-social behavior intended to benefit others.

This plan is summarized on a poster which you can download here. Print and post this prominently in your classroom, administrative office, cafeteria -- wherever a gentle reminder can help build the empathy muscle. Share it with families through newsletters, your school's website -- whatever channels you use to communicate with home. Multiple reinforcements and multiple outlets for action can start to shift a class or school culture toward empathy as a strength that's consciously practiced and cultivated, contributing to life-long health, inside and out.

Establish a Positive Community

Comments (25)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Rey Carr's picture

One of the best ways to put empathy into practice in schools is through the creation of a peer helping program where students learn how to demonstrate empathy to each other and deal with real-life concerns. Rather than just teaching empathy, a school with a peer helping program, gives students a chance to practice empathy on a daily basis. Peer helping also builds on the natural tendency students have to help each other.

Hal's picture
Hal teaches teachers how to be more effective and person centered

Bravo on this post!! In our new book, On Becoming an Effective Teacher -- Carl Roger's last book -- co-authored with Rogers, Reinhard Tausch (who gave us his research chapter on Empathy just before he died this year), and me, we present the largest field studies ever done on Effective teaching (in 42 States and 7 countries by Dave Aspy and Flora Roebuck) showing that the three most important traits for the most effective teaching are Empathy, Caring (Rogers called it "Prizing"), and Genuineness: http://www.routledge.com/education/articles/routledge_education_author_o...
The book is available here: http://deepwaterspress.com/www.deepwaterspress.com/New_Book_in_2013%21.html

Empathy was found to be even more important that competence in the subject matter!

Here's to Empathy!

Hal Lyon

Edwin Rutsch's picture
Edwin Rutsch
Director: Center for Building a Culture of Empathy

Hi Hal,
I'd like to see if I could interview you about your book. see
Invitation to be interviewed by Edwin Rutsch
Dialogs on How to Build a Culture of Empathy
Edwin Rutsch
Director: Center for Building a Culture of Empathy

Hal's picture
Hal teaches teachers how to be more effective and person centered

I'd be happy to explore this with you. My regular email is: halcyon@yahoo.com

Happy new year!


zep's picture
Education Specialist

"Rather than just teaching empathy..." Absolutely agree Rey, however; I would add that it must be done in an authentic context. If the school retains all real power in the hands of the adults, real opportunities to practice empathy will be lost. When a School Meeting within a Free School takes into consideration the nuances of all the individuals involved in a conflict, there are real opportunities to engage in and apply empathy which otherwise do not exist. Empathy within the confines of a power structure are certainly possible, but it does arguably create a box.

Russ Ewell's picture
Russ Ewell
Parent of 3 and Android + iOS Educational App Developer

I am coming back to this article. The bedrock and foundation for including special needs in the classroom is Empathy. Must share again.

Melanie Link Taylor's picture
Melanie Link Taylor
Educator, Blogger, Southern California

As a further suggestion, living through literature creates empathy, such as journeying through 'The Story of My Life' by Helen Keller. All literature, and poetry, can serve this purpose.

Gai Jones's picture
Gai Jones
Theatre Educator

I am a 50 year professional Theatre educator working with approximately 8000 students from ages of 5-95. I am thrilled to recognize all the empathetic descriptors in the field of Theatre education. Put a little Theatre education in your life. Take a bow.

Swms's picture

Empathy is so important in the classroom. As a middle school language arts teacher, I have a unique opportunity to use empathy as a lens for my students. Writing from the perspective of others is a great way to integrate empathy. For instance, my students write diary entries like they are one of the Little Rock Nine. Keeping empathy in mind as I plan allows me to keep it as a focus throughout the year.

Thanks for the article.

Chioma Imemba's picture

Very often, the power and effect of empathy is underestimated especially when educators get carried away by the curriculum and lose sight of the fact that we are dealing with real people - emotional beings!
I really enjoyed reading this post, thanks for sharing.

Russ Ewell's picture
Russ Ewell
Parent of 3 and Android + iOS Educational App Developer

I am coming back to this article. The bedrock and foundation for including special needs in the classroom is Empathy. Must share again.


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