A classic explanation of empathy is the ability to walk in another’s shoes and understand the person’s experience. Empathy is universally significant across environments, contexts and relationships. What’s more, everyone can benefit from practicing it. Nonetheless, there is hardly an environment in greater need of empathy than the classroom.
Why We Need Empathy in the Classroom
Empathy is integral to overcoming and respecting differences, building a stronger world view, forging new relationships, and communicating successfully. Researchers often describe two distinct types of empathy: affective empathy and cognitive empathy.
- Affective empathy relates to an individual’s capacity to share in another’s feelings. This may include mirroring what the other is feeling or having your own unique physical or emotional reaction.
- Cognitive empathy involves being able to understand another’s perspective and comprehend why a person might be feeling a certain way.
Both types of empathy—feeling for another person and recognizing why others feel—are essential in the classroom.
Teachers have a significant responsibility to practice empathy with their students and foster empathy within students. For one, when teachers are caring, supportive, and responsive to their students, the learning environment is enriched.
Students enter the educational environment with all sorts of concerns and problems. When the teacher encourages nurturing and support and sets appropriate guidelines for how students engage with one another, students have a safe place to work through and overcome cultural, racial, socioeconomic, and even personal issues. An empathetic teacher gives each student a framework to build on in which all students’ thoughts, opinions, feelings, and differences are uplifted.
Teachers cannot expect to have an impact on intellectual development without becoming involved in their students’ emotional development, also. When teachers make a conscious effort to develop a caring relationship with their students, dramatic positive changes can be seen in behavior, effort and performance in class.
How to Effectively Practice Empathy in the Classroom
How can you foster empathy in the classroom? Below are just a few examples of ways you can introduce empathy into your classes.
- Model it. Your students are watching you, even when you think they are not. Portray an attitude of empathy in the classroom by showing compassion, positive regard, and understanding for all with whom you interact. Continue this behavior in the halls, the cafeteria, and even with how you interact with other teachers.
- Try to communicate empathy. Use teachable moments in class to explain how one student or even a character in a story might be feeling during a certain situation. This will get your students thinking about things from the perspectives of others.
- Emphasize shared values and common interests. Rather than highlighting how students are different, help them to recognize things they may have in common with one another, such as hobbies or even a shared desire to do good in class.
- Offer a safe environment to discuss differences. Give your students ample opportunity to respectfully discuss their differences within the context of classroom discussions. This allows students to recognize that having differences is not bad, but it forces them to also respect the opinions and perspective of others, too.
- Use self-disclosure. When appropriate, share stories or examples about your own life to connect to students on a human level.
- Create opportunities for collaboration. Whether through group projects or teams during games, allow students to work together and forge bonds through their motivation to win or lose in an activity.
Empathy is an important tool for both teachers and students to learn and grow socially, intellectually, and emotionally. Fortunately, empathy can be cultivated in even young students. Make use of these strategies to create an environment of empathy in the classroom starting today.