Empathy: The Most Important Back-to-School Supply | Edutopia
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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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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

Dr. Susan Stillman's picture

Great information and resources shared here on this vital topic for not only education but for all people hoping to connect for positive change and make a difference.

I will be giving a presentation on Empathy: Why Should We Care at the 4th International Congress on Emotional Intelligence (http://www.icei2013.org/ ) in NYC
on Sept 8, 2013. I'll be sharing insights and best practices from my own work at Six Seconds, the Emotional Intelligence Network, where empathy is one of our EQ 8 competencies, and part of the the pursuit of "Give Yourself." I'll also be sharing resources and links to Edutopia, The Greater Good Science Center, Ashoka, and the Center for Building a Culture of Empathy.

Samer Rabadi's picture
Samer Rabadi
Online Community Manager

@Dr. Susan Stillman, that sounds like an interesting presentation. Maybe you can come back afterwards and post a link to it here?

Laura Morgan, Ed. D.'s picture
Laura Morgan, Ed. D.
I am heavily involved in my community in promoting SEL.

Many children in my neighborhood have seen their friends die from gunshots, drug overdose, etc. It seems they have developed apathy to survive. Recently, one of my young neighbors was heading back off to college and he told me one of his friends had been gunned downed a very close to our homes. Here he is heading back off to college for his senior year with this thought on his mind. He told me there is no love in our community and that when he graduates from college he is not coming back to Chicago. I can understand why? How do you build empathy in children that have witnessed so much pain in their lives? I think it starts with role modeling in and out of the classroom.

Dee DiGioia's picture
Dee DiGioia
Founder, Caring and Courageous Kids

I love this article and your mission. My work with "Caring and Courageous Kids" is "inspiring a culture of compassionate thinkers" to help break the cycle of bullying!!! So what you wrote aligns completely with the very things that come across in my story on dvd for elementary school-aged children and the guidebook I wrote and published to go along with it. The theme within the story focuses on "exercise your brain" to "practice, practice" the skills we are learning to help us in our relationships with one another to "be smart, use your heart" when making choices. Of course- all this is a play on words on the very topic of social-emotional intelligence.

bob dobbs's picture

Unfortunately emotions and empathy are human's greatest weakness and what will lead to our eventual destruction. Both attributes cloud your ability to make important and difficult decisions. They however do a wonderful job of making us feel "better" about ourselves which is the only thing most people care about.

When we finally come to grips with the fact that in order survive as a species we must be less empathetic we will finally have progressed.

Samer Rabadi's picture
Samer Rabadi
Online Community Manager

I very much believe that empathy is a source of strength. Instead of clouding an issue, it provides clarity about what's important, what's at stake, and what may be influencing the individuals involved. I love these ideas for working out the empathy muscle. Emotional fitness is just as important as physical fitness.

Lu McCallum's picture
Lu McCallum
Special Education Teacher 1-4

With all of the great information provided here it gives me some ideas on how to assist one of my students in the classroom. Thank you

Ariel's picture
Second grade ELL Teacher in Istanbul, Turkey

Before I moved abroad, I was teaching ELL in the U.S. Whereas I truly cared about my students and wanted them to advance in their English language abilities, I could not relate to what it felt like to be in their shoes. One of the major reasons behind me moving abroad to teach ELL was to gain the empathy I needed to become a better teacher for my students. Living abroad in a new country, trying to learn a new language, and being immersed in another culture, has brought me to new heights in my teaching and a forming a stronger connection with my students.
Since my students are all of the same ethnicity, my goal is to show them what it means to be empathetic. I will print out the poster you mentioned above and keep it in the teacher's room at school. Thanks to all the extra resources from the comments on your post, I will be able to have a better understanding of how to present this to my students.

Samantha's picture
Pre-school teacher from Phoenix, AZ

Choosing to move to another country to build you empathy, and allow yourself to become more culturally aware, is an amazingly brave and selfless choice. I admire you for your choice, and wish more teachers displayed that kind of dedication to their craft. I can imagine how much better a teacher you have become by allowing yourself to step outside of your comfort zone, and view the world from your student's perspective. I would be interested to learn more about your experience, and what it was like to be immersed in a culture in which you were completely unfamiliar. The understanding you can now have of your students has truly reached a new level. Now, rather than being merely sympathetic, you are truly empathetic of their feelings. I honestly believe empathy is one of the more important tools in enhancing one's diversity consciousness. While the skills you have learned by moving abroad have helped you be a better teacher, they will no doubt assist you in being a better employee, daughter, friend, and person, as those skills will spill over into every aspect of your life. Again, thank you for you sacrifice, and your service, you are truly an amazing person.

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