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Empathy in the Classroom: Why Should I Care?

Lauren Owen

Ed.M. Candidate '16, International Education Policy, Harvard Graduate School of Education
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A closeup of a young boy giving the peace sign with his fingers.

I vividly remember sitting in my classroom with my teaching coach, ready to begin my second year of teaching. We were strategizing my vision for the classroom and for my students. Over the past year, the school where I worked had grown increasingly obsessed with test scores, but the more I considered my students and their needs, the less test scores motivated me.

"Lauren, what do your students need?" my coach asked me.

I paused. They need . . . empathy, I thought before saying it out loud. Shortly after, I had constructed my entire classroom around the concept.

That year, empathy became a central component of my classroom instruction. Given that I taught history, empathy naturally lent itself to discussions of varying perspectives about and intentions of history’s key players. The deeper our discussions went, though, the more convinced I became that empathy needed to be a central piece in every school setting.

3 Benefits of Empathy in Education

Empathyed.org quotes Tyler Colasante by defining empathy "as 'the intrapersonal realization of another's plight that illuminates the potential consequences of one's own actions on the lives of others' (as cited in Hollingsworth, 2003, p.146)." As educators, incorporating empathy into instruction can have positive results for your immediate classroom, as well as for the community outside of the school building. Here’s why:

1. Empathy builds positive classroom culture.

With the diversity of students entering classrooms each day, paralleled by an increase in globalization, it's more necessary than ever for teachers to actively construct a positive classroom culture. In his article "Developing Empathy in the Classroom," Bob Sornson asserts: "Empathy is the heart of a great classroom culture." Through empathy, he explains, students learn to understand each other, which helps them to build friendships based on positive relationships of trust. Taking the time to demonstrate empathy can also develop student-teacher relationships, as described by Ernest Mendes in "What Empathy Can Do." On a more academic note, school programs that intentionally incorporate empathy into curriculum have also seen better test results, as described by John Converse Townsend in Forbes Magazine.

2. Empathy strengthens community.

Given that the definition of empathy involves understanding another's feelings without having experience, empathy sets students up to deepen relationships with their current classmates and people that they know outside of school. In our increasingly globalized world, these people may be coming from different cultures and different socioeconomic backgrounds than before, thereby necessitating better developed empathy skills. Michaela W. Colombo writes in her article "Reflections From Teachers of Culturally Diverse Children" (PDF) that "approximately 40 percent of children in the U.S. public schools are from culturally diverse backgrounds (NCES 2003)."

As children learn empathy skills by communicating cross-culturally with their classmates, those skills will transfer to their lives in their community. The deeper relationships that result from strong empathy skills have the potential to strengthen a community and build trust. The effects of community extend far beyond the four walls of your classroom.

3. Empathy prepares your students to be leaders in their community.

Leaders must understand the people that they lead and be able to show that they care. Leadership articles emphasize human development as an essential leadership quality. A study conducted by the Center for Creative Leadership (PDF) found that "empathy is positively related to job performance" (Gentry, Weber, & Sadri, p.3). Jon Kolko describes in the Harvard Business Review how empathy is the key to a successful product. Our students must be able to empathize with those whom they lead in order to make them feel valued. This validation will strengthen trust between the leader and followers. As teachers, we must equip our students to be the future leaders of our communities and beyond.

Resources for Teaching Empathy

So now what? You're convinced that empathy is important to integrate in your curriculum, but where do you start?

Fortunately, other educators have wondered the same thing, and many already provide lesson plans and ideas for how to incorporate and increase empathy in the classroom. Here are a few:

Do you teach empathy in your classroom? Please tell us about your experiences in the comments section below.

Was this useful? (3)
Student Stories, Student Impact
This series offers ways to engage both teachers and students in social-emotional practices.

Lauren Owen

Ed.M. Candidate '16, International Education Policy, Harvard Graduate School of Education
In This Series
This series offers ways to engage both teachers and students in social-emotional practices.

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Megan's picture

I very much enjoyed this article! It is so essential to have empathy within your classroom, as a teacher you need to model what empathy looks like. Teaching your students to be empathetic to one another teaches them to care about others. This allows them to go into society and make a positive difference because they care about the well being of others. An empathic classroom helps to create a positive classroom community where all students feel loved and cared for. Who would not want to learn in an environment like this?

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

Lauren,
nice article. another resource is
Center for Building a Culture of Empathy
Conference: How to Nurture, Foster and Teach Empathy in the Education System?
http://j.mp/JNDbGl

Paulina Olsson's picture

We have successfully implemented www.peppypals.com EQ-concept, apps and books, into five preschools in Sweden and are trying to expand that to teachers and parents worldwide. In fact, we just visited 6seconds EQ-school and were amazed of their work.

Lauren Owen's picture
Lauren Owen
Ed.M. Candidate '16, International Education Policy, Harvard Graduate School of Education

Thanks Megan! I completely agree--it's so important to model empathy! At the same time, it's so hard, especially because teachers are so busy! It was something I struggled to remember daily, and continue to wrestle with the fact that showing empathy doesn't mean lowering or changing the standards we hold our students to.

Lauren Owen's picture
Lauren Owen
Ed.M. Candidate '16, International Education Policy, Harvard Graduate School of Education

Edwin and Paulina--thank you for sharing these resources! These are excellent! I hope that other teachers see this in the comments and use them in their classroom.

Meghan's picture

I believe your comments on # 3 "Empathy prepares your students to be leaders in their community" is vital to success within the classroom. Empathy not only strengthens the community but it also makes each person feel valued and expanding that trust between the speakers and listeners.
Great point!

Geri Pappas, Ed.D.'s picture

More of our professional development needs to be directed at cultivating empathy among teachers. This was an excellent post regarding empathy, its impact on the classroom, and its implications for a better society.

Andrew_Weiler's picture
Andrew_Weiler
Passionate about leading people to be the great language learners they all once were

In the area of language learning, empathy I would suggest is essential if you are ever to learn the language to the highest of levels. How else would you be able to really understand what people are saying and be able to express it in ways that are understood AS you want it understood - http://www.strategiesinlanguagelearning.com/language-learning-and-empathy/

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