George Lucas Educational Foundation
Communication Skills

How to Develop Empathetic Student Citizens

Teaching students how to disagree with each other respectfully is critical for developing the citizenship skills they’ll need in life.

February 24, 2022
SDI Productions / iStock

Everything we need to know to be good humans is hanging on the wall in most kindergarten classrooms: 

  • Keep your hands, feet, and objects to yourselves.
  • Clean up after yourself.
  • Sharing is caring.
  • Use your kind words.
  • Listen when others are talking.
  • Wait your turn.

In higher grade levels, the rules are often reduced to “Be respectful.” Even though most adults have been taught these lessons, we often do a poor job of modeling these behaviors beyond the classroom.

What does being respectful look like, and how can we model and teach those behaviors to future generations in every class every day? Teaching good citizenship has traditionally been an important part of a teacher’s job, but with polarization and fear taking priority over civic education, there is often little opportunity to teach students to respect diverse beliefs and ideologies.

How can we as educators and shapers of our nation’s future do all that and keep our jobs, certification, and credibility? One answer lies in modifying our own relationship with our truths and empowering students to discover their own.

Implement Student-Led, Discovery-Focused Learning

Unfortunately, as much as we would sometimes like to avoid the stress that sometimes comes with having difficult conversations on sensitive topics, our students often come to our rooms with ideas about what’s going on in the world around them. Further, the classroom is the place where students are most likely to encounter diverse groups of people with diverse ideas. That provides us with an enormous opportunity to create empathetic, unified learning communities.

What if, instead of bringing up current events, you chose parent-approved, student-friendly news sites and allowed students to discuss whichever topics they found interesting? What if you allowed students to give their opinions using a talking stick? What if you explicitly taught students active listening skills and how to disagree while keeping friendships?

Teach Students to Question, Question, Question

What if, instead of guiding learning, you asked questions or even had students come up with their own questions to ask about topics?

Using “I notice, I wonder” statements, you can teach your students to pass judgment less and question more. Passing judgment includes making value statements about current events. Some examples include “That was stupid,” “They are morons,” “Anybody who thinks that is just wrongheaded.” Instead, teach students to question. What choices were made? What could have motivated those choices? Was the outcome what they expected? Why or why not?

When students seek to understand the motivations behind human action, they’re more likely to empathize with others. Finding common ground not only will help build a stronger, more unified learning community but also will build stronger communities beyond school walls.

Monitor Your Own Opinions as a Moderator

In order to look critically at all sides of issues, especially those that we may personally feel strongly about, it’s really  important that we don’t wear our own political feelings on our sleeves. That’s not easy when we consume news from outlets within our filter bubble that confirm what we already believe. Further, when we spend time consuming and responding to angry social media posts, we reinforce the walls that divide us.

Although what we do on our own time shouldn’t come under fire, what we read and hear after the school bell rings either reinforces our ability to respond to diverse opinions neutrally or makes us more likely to react in a way that limits our ability to fairly moderate discussions on sensitive topics in the classroom. That inability to moderate fairly could also jeopardize teacher-student relationships, which in turn would affect student outcomes.

Blue Cross Blue Shield recommends limiting news consumption to reduce our stress levels. Using strategies like limiting our own screen time and choosing upbeat podcasts and TV shows can give us respite from the strong emotions we absorb and sometimes bring with us into the classroom.

Strategies to Try Out

Besides monitoring our media consumption habits, a good mantra is “I might be right, they might be wrong—but I might be wrong, they might be right.” This statement is correct more often than we’d like to think, when we are passionate about issues. Giving “the other side” the benefit of the doubt and not closing the door on different perspectives will help us guide our students to do the same. Acknowledging the possibility of being wrong is another good way to approach civil disagreement.

One additional strategy is to argue the other side of any issue and have your students do the same. Disproving what you believe gives you the opportunity to see solutions and perspectives that you might not otherwise consider. In class, having students research the side of an argument they don’t believe in builds media literacy and cultural competence.

Finally, don’t give your students the feeling that every hot topic can be swept under the rug. It’s our responsibility to teach our students to disagree civilly, and that lesson is imperative for a free and unified society. Teach your students that almost anything can be discussed as long as people agree to disagree with respect. Then, remind them that respect looks a lot like what they can see on a kindergarten poster.

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  • Classroom Management

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