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16 Dec 2021

4 Ways to Develop Empathy in your classroom

4 Ways to Develop Empathy in your classroom

Empathy is a skill, not a concept. A skill that allows us to build trust, feel respected and most importantly, like we belong. Any classroom that can utilise the power of empathy will be successful and it’s why we must be developing now and always.

The good and bad news for developing empathy

First, the good news. Anyone — literally anyone — can get better at any skill(as long as you have a long term mindset and approach). The bad news — developing any skill takes time, consistency and effort — something that is harder to encourage now in our time-poor, instant-gratification world.

Developing any skill can be daunting but I urge you to treat it like brushing your teeth. Brush your teeth for 2 minutes and you see nothing. Brush your teeth for 2 minutes twice a day, every day of your life and we know that we will have healthier teeth that will last our lifetime (hopefully).

Empathy is the same. Small incremental moments of understanding, respect and curiosity that over time can shape the health and wellbeing of not only the individual but also those around you.

Defining empathy

It’s important for me to explain my definition of empathy here. For us at Empathy Week, it’s the ability to reserve judgment and understand another by creating space for them to reveal their true authentic self. 

The key here is understanding and from a neutral standpoint. Empathy is often misunderstood to just mean an emotional response to someone in pain, distress or in need. Whilst there are elements of empathy in those responses, they’re not particularly useful in a practical sense, are often biased and don’t always lead to greater understanding of someone else’s actual reality.

What interests me about empathy is that if you can develop it, you will then have a greater understanding of what someone else actually wants and needs. Meaning you can better place your time and energy whilst making someone else feel that they are really understood, respected and listened to. Isn’t that something we all want to experience? And no matter our differences — culture, ethnicity, beliefs, ideas and opinions — we can still empathise, we just need to be taught how to get better at it.

The convincing stage…

Here are a few important papers and articles that support the importance of empathy…

  • Empathy can be taught and increases creativity in students — Read here — Dr. Helen Demetriou and Dr. Bill Nichol (2021), Cambridge University 
  • More evidence that empathy to be taught — Read here — Dr. Helen Riess. (2017)
  • 94% of employers say that life skills are at least as important as academic results for the success of young people, with nearly one third saying even more so —Read here — Sutton Trust (2017)
  • The benefits of empathy in education include building positive classroom culture, strengthening community, and preparing students to be leaders in their own communities — Read Here — Edutopia (2015)
  • Innovation and empathy allow remote learning to be accessible to all — Read here — Dr. Christina Cipriano and Gabbie Rappolt-Schlichtmann, Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence.

How can I start to integrate the development of empathy in my classroom?

1. Offer as many opportunities for sharing of experiences as possible.

This means both ways. Gone are the days of teachers not talking about their own lives — how can you expect to know everything about your students if they know nothing about you? Get comfortable sharing your own fears, biases, assumptions and learnings. This will help build trust, respect and a culture of teamwork in the road to academic and personal success.

Tip — use a post-it note and ask students to anonymously tell you the best and worst part of their week so far, it maybe more revealing than you think.

2. Integrate the practice of empathy into your lesson plans 

The biggest barrier I hear is that there isn’t enough time and I hear it, I really do. Having been a teacher I know there is no harder job, the pressures are immense. However, with some simple steps you can integrate the development of empathy to elevate your lessons — whatever subject you teach. 

Each lesson ask yourself, “How will my students understand one element of another person’s different perspective or emotions?” Hint — it can be someone within the classroom and they also don’t have to agree!

Empathy is the curiosity to discover a different viewpoint and not shut it down (though you can still disagree!). Being able to have a conversation and respect someone with a wildly different opinion to you is possibly one of the most important things we can teach young people right now.

3. Talk about empathy during conflict — and use empathy yourself when it comes to your own behaviour management. 

“There’s no excuse for the way you’re behaving but there is always a reason. So what’s the reason?” — became my go to line as a teacher when telling a student off. It’s the element of curiosity that led me to becoming a better teacher. Repercussions were still upheld (as they are in the normal world) but students learnt I had an invested interest in what was best for them. I wanted to know what made them act in a manner that wasn’t acceptable. Therefore I also built a knowledge of how I could manage each individual character in my classroom — because that’s what we often forget. It’s not just about equality, it’s also ensuring equity — and that means creating the right (not always the same) environment for everyone to succeed.

4. Take part in school programmes that develop Empathy. I set out myself to build the Empathy Week which use the power of film to develop the skills of empathy and leadership. Whilst once a year, the programme can be run over 6 weeks and has the vision of a long-term impact. If students take part every year of their school career, by the time they turn 18, they will have watched the lives of 65 amazing humans from every continent, background, religion, ethnicity and belief — entering the world of work already exposed and more acceptant of the diversity within it.

I’ve also previously written about how empathy is the secret component to better kindness — it truly is a skill that if you focus on will result in every component of school life becoming better. Now it’s time to make those small changes and help build an empathy generation.

aEd Kirwan is the CEO and founder at Empathy Week - a global schools programme using the power of film to develop the skill of empathy and leadership. On a mission to build the #EmpathyGeneration, so far 100,000+ students across 40+ countries have taken part. Having taught previously in North London, Ed’s unique understanding of film and education has led him to work with some of the world’s largest school groups (Cognita) as well as companies such as Snapchat and Tes during Empathy Week. Empathy is the most crucial skill for better personal and professional lives and our collective wellbeing.



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