Nearly everyone agrees that K-12 schools should teach math, reading, writing, history, and science. In our increasingly computer-based post-pandemic world, many educators are interested in teaching another set of skills: social-emotional learning, which starts with empathy.
By teaching empathy, schools can help the next generation grow into caring, kind and collaborative members of their communities.
What Is Empathy?
Empathy is the ability to sense and feel other people’s emotions. It requires the willingness to imagine another person’s situation and experiences, feel distress about their pain, and act with compassion.
There are two main types of empathy: affective empathy and cognitive empathy. Affective empathy is the ability to share another’s emotions and offer help to people in need, while cognitive empathy is the ability to understand and be curious about another’s thoughts, behaviors, and situation. Both kinds of empathy can be strengthened with training and practice.
8 Reasons to Teach Empathy in K-12 Schools
1. Teaching empathy helps students learn acceptance of others.
Empathy allows us to understand what other people who are different from us may be feeling. By teaching students empathy, you can encourage the next generation to understand and accept each other better.
2. Teaching empathy may reduce bullying and conflict.
When students can empathize with each other, they may be less likely to engage in bullying behaviors and more likely to resolve or avoid conflict. Students are more likely to treat each other the way they want to be treated.
3. Teaching empathy helps students learn to build stronger relationships with other students.
Empathy enables students to connect with each other even when they are experiencing different emotions and challenges. Students can comfort one another when they are sad and celebrate each other’s successes.
4. Teaching empathy helps students learn to build stronger relationships with their teachers and other adults.
Empathy doesn’t have to end with same-age peers. With empathy, students can learn to understand others’ perspectives, interact in more positive ways, and ultimately enjoy closer relationships with people of all ages.
5. Children are likely to feel more secure in an empathetic classroom.
When a classroom is full of empathetic students who treat each other well, each individual child can feel more secure. Students will know they are respected and be able to form positive relationships with their peers.
6. Empathy is an important skill for success throughout a student’s lifetime.
Empathy is a key skill for successfully working together, not only in school but also in the workplace and community. By teaching students empathy, you can help students succeed in their future educational pursuits and grow into peaceful and productive adults.
7. Empathy will help students understand others later on, including future coworkers and customers.
Today’s students will someday be adults, and they will need to deal with conflicts at work. If they can empathize with their coworkers and customers and understand their perspectives, the next generation will be able to resolve problems in ways that work for everyone.
8. Empathy will help tomorrow’s leaders be more effective in their roles.
Great leadership requires understanding everyone’s perspectives, not just your own. Empathy will enable the leaders of the future to come up with better solutions for all members of their communities and create a more peaceful, just world.
How to Teach Empathy in School
There are many ways to help your students develop empathy. Some of the most effective ways include:
- Be a living example. Kids often learn by observing the adults around them, so teachers can encourage students to practice empathy by modeling it themselves. We encourage teachers to demonstrate active listening, validate students’ feelings, and show curiosity for students’ experiences.
- Encourage students to identify characters’ emotions in literature, pictures, and films. Learning to name and understand emotions in fiction can help students better understand emotions in real life, including their own emotions.
- Practice reflective journaling. Journaling encourages students to document their reflections, beliefs, and feelings about their experiences or the things they learn. As students develop more awareness of their own emotions and experiences, they will become better equipped to relate to others’ emotions and experiences.
- Teach and use mindfulness techniques. Mindfulness is the practice of focusing on present-moment thoughts, feelings, sensations, and the environment around us while maintaining a kind and open attitude. Practicing mindfulness helps students develop more compassionate self-awareness and emotional regulation skills, which help a lot with practicing empathy.