Importance of Empathy in the Classroom

Results of a recent study at the University of Michigan show a troubling trend in regards to bullying and empathy in US classrooms. Over the past three decades, empathy among teens has dropped nearly 40 percent, and 1 in 3 students report experiencing bullying at least once. In light of these stats, it’s clear that cultivating and restoring empathy should be a priority in school. Here are four tips for educators looking to create more empathetic classrooms.

  1. Hold class meetings. Class meetings can take many forms; some teachers choose to open the school year with a class meeting to discuss feelings and emotions, and how students can be empathetic in their interactions with one another. Other teachers hold class meetings when they are needed, often stopping class so they can discuss issues that have arisen in the moment. Whether the meetings are pre-planned or inspired by events happening in and outside the classroom, it’s important that such conversations are common, expected and inclusive. Discussing feelings and emotions and modeling shows students that the teacher understands, and this is a great first step.
  2. Read about the world. In the classroom, reading has long been a powerful way to help students see situations from different perspectives. Read aloud sessions help students understand topics like empathy, but teachers don’t always have to only turn to fictional stories for these lessons. News articles and other nonfiction writing about current events are a great tool. They help create opportunities for students to understand what is going on in the world and for them to consider how they would feel in situations facing students in other places.
  3. Make use of SEL (social emotional learning) videos and activities. Reading should always be encouraged, but it’s no secret that most students love videos. There’s something immensely helpful about actually seeing ideas play out in front of you, and modern teachers certainly have plenty of options. Following the video, it’s important to further foster the lessons that have been learned with class discussion. Teachers can divide the class into groups to discuss the importance of being kind and understanding, or they can organize other activities highlighting the lesson. “My students make cute inspirational cards and pass them out to friends who need a little smile,” said Rachel Holderbach, a kindergarten teacher from Gilbert, Arizona. “That person, in turn, looks for another friend who needs it and passes that same card to them.”
  4. Model empathy every day. Teachers and other students can be role models who show students the importance of empathy in their day-to-day interactions. By using yourself as an example, you can start a thoughtful discussion about feelings in the classroom. Some educators have created peer mentor programs where students take on the role of helping resolve conflicts between students. Reading and watching videos can provide many great examples for students to model empathy, but often the best examples are those they see every day in the classroom. 

Allison Green
Boston Tutoring Services

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