Building Empathy in the Classroom
Written by Tiffany Creager
We are living through an incredible time of physical and emotional disconnection. Despite technological advances created to keep us connected, we seem to be moving in the opposite direction. We’ve seen it happening for years as smartphones become the focus at dinners, video games trump family game nights, texting takes the place of phone calls, and emojis replace the use of words.
Add in social distancing, quarantining, and working/learning from home and it becomes increasingly easier to be and feel isolated, lonely, and disconnected. This is being reflected in an increased need for mental health support, a need that is too overwhelming to be met by mental health professionals alone.
As the numbers of adults, teens, and children with depression, anxiety, suicidal ideation, and other mental health struggles rise, it has never been more important to connect, to see each other, and to simply be together. The effect of this rise in mental illness doesn’t end with those suffering, it ripples into the lives of loved ones, peers, and communities. When one of us suffers, we all suffer. We have seen that more than ever during a prolonged period of collective trauma and grief. It is time to move together towards collective healing.
A great first step towards this healing is rebuilding environments centered around relationships. In an effort to develop mutually caring relationships that extend beyond the walls of our homes and classrooms we might start with the teaching, modeling, and practicing of empathy.
Despite the belief of some, empathy is not an inherent trait that you either have or don’t, it is a skill that must be learned and practiced. It is connecting with the emotion someone is feeling, saying, “I’ve felt that way too”, and simply sitting with them. This learned skill reduces bullying behavior, strengthens communication skills, increases engagement, and strengthens relationships.
The practice of empathy, according to Brené Brown is “simply holding space, withholding judgment, emotionally connecting, and communicating that incredibly healing message of you’re not alone.” It is free from shame and full of kindness. It is a necessary next step in our pursuance of healing. Together we will explore how we can make empathy a part of our daily routine and practices through the building of safe spaces, modeling and creating opportunities for practicing empathy.
Building Safe Spaces
As we have learned to be true in a number of ways, no learning can come until our students feel safe – Maslow before Bloom, right? This applies to learning the skill of empathy as well. Prior to being able to consistently connect with others’ emotions, we have to: have safe relationships, self-regulation skills, and self-awareness. This concept is portrayed below by this fantastic visual from Momentous Institute.
It is important to note a few things about this process. First of all, it is not linear. We will move in and out of each phase at different times with different experiences and that’s okay. We can support our students by assessing where they are and meeting them there as we guide them to a place of empathy.
This support begins with building a trusting relationship. We can then build regulation skills into the fabric of our day, returning to a relaxed brain state, identifying feelings, recognizing sensations, and integrating breathwork. An important part of this work is discussing the purpose openly and giving that space.
For those students who are approaching the awareness of self stage, we allow time for reflection, gratitude, and developing a positive bias. When we see these skills fall into place, we’re ready for our next steps.
Quick Tips for Building Safe Spaces
Here are just a few examples of strategies that will help you get there!
- Ask your students about their interests, families, and friends.
- Share your stories.
- Listen. This is a simple but powerful one.
- Use the 2×10 strategy – choose one student and spend 2 minutes a day for 10 days letting them talk about whatever they choose. Again, simple but powerful and great for those harder to reach students.
- Create classroom rules that encourage community, time for breaks, and acknowledge different brain states
- Breathe. Teach the power of deep breath. Talk about how it calms our bodies. Start each day with at least 90 seconds of deep breathing and allow time for students to reflect. You may find you’d like to practice deep breathing multiple times a day! It’s quick and it works.
- Teach students how their brains work! The Indiana Department of Education has an Educational Neuroscience Toolkit that is great for this.
- Teach students to recognize and identify their emotions. We can’t tame what we can’t name! Here’s a great example created from strategies taught in the book Permission to Feel
- Introduce a new regulatory practice weekly. Allow students to practice and reflect. Have students journal their experiences so they can build their own individualized regulation menu that will be ready anytime they feel dysregulated.
Our children and our students are always watching and as much as we would love for them to do what we say rather than what we do, the reality is they learn so much more by what we model. For that reason (and because it’s just a beautiful skill), we need to develop our own empathy practice. This can be done by showing empathy to our students, our families, colleagues, strangers, book characters, etc.
But one of the greatest modeling tools we have is acknowledging when we’ve misstepped. Brené Brown’s Daring Classroom has integration ideas specifically designed to support students in developing the complex skill of empathy including a list of “empathy misses” that increase understanding and awareness of how we unintentionally miss the boat at times.
Whether we find ourselves trying to solve someone else’s problem instead of listening and validating, one-upping their experience, or unintentionally shaming, we can learn and grow from the experience as we mature in our ability to recognize when empathy is required and how to use it. We can then “circle back” as Brown says to fix our missteps. This type of modeling can go a long way in teaching the complexity and power of this learned skill.
Quick Tips for Modeling
- Validate our students’ feelings. It is common for us as adults to believe we are helping when we go right to encouragement, but often that invalidates the feelings shared with us. For example, when a student tells us, “I’m so dumb, I can’t do this.” What is our go to response? Maybe, “Of course you’re not dumb! You just can’t do this yet!” Instead, we might say, “that sounds like you feel really frustrated. I’ve felt dumb trying new things too.” Then share, listen, and when the child feels heard, move to assistance. Here are some other examples of validating language:
- Listen. This was stated above and I’ll list it over and over when it comes to empathy. Sit with your students, give them your attention and just listen.
- Talk about your missteps – a great deal of respect is earned in the face of humility. Acknowledging that we mess up can go a long way with our students.
Create Opportunities for Practice
We’ve created a safe space, we’re modeling our journey with empathy, now let’s give these kids a chance to practice! Just as reading and math skills develop with practice, empathy too will grow with every new opportunity to try.
As we discussed above, integrating these practices into the fabric of our day allows it to be a skill that is not separate from the way we live our lives but is instead an important part of who we are and how we treat one another. This is where we see the greatest benefits.
We’ll reduce bullying behavior, increase productivity, create a community that students enjoy being a part of, and leave them with a skill that they will carry into the world. A skill that’s ripple effect can have a world-changing impact. I believe it in my bones. This is how we create a better world for our students and generations to come. We teach and allow them to practice seeing one another through an empathetic lens.
Quick tips for practice
- Use literature to teach different perspectives. This can be done with literature you are already studying or you can bring in new scenarios. One of my favorite books for teaching differing perspectives to young kids is A Tale of Two Beasts. This sweet little story is a fantastic way to open up a discussion about point of view and its importance in communication.
- Create community guidelines that include showing empathy.
- Give students the opportunity to discover what they appreciate from others when receiving empathy and how they can do that in their interactions. Examples might include: look me in the eye, just listen, don’t solve or shame, I need hugs, I need space.
- Empathy mapping – whether discussing a character in a book or a story in the news, allow students to step into this person’s shoes, to understand their emotions, thoughts, and worldview. This can be a start to breaking down misunderstandings or barriers students may have in connecting with others.
As we watch our world become more disconnected than engaged, we have the power to create change. This change starts with the teaching, modeling, and practicing of one very important, very complex skill, empathy. When we pause to understand the emotions of others we see one another in meaningful ways. We begin to heal what may have been broken. We have collectively grieved for so long.
Together, let’s take the first step in collective healing by sitting with one another and saying, “I see you. I’ve been there too.” Only then can we step into this world ready to create positive, meaningful, lasting change.
Read more from Tiffany Creager:
- Value Based Living, Working, and Leading
- It’s Fine, I’m Fine – Prioritizing Physical and Mental Health Despite Ongoing Stress
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