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Can teachers help students become more empathetic?

Homepage Forums Brain-Based Learning Q&A Can teachers help students become more empathetic?

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    • #72030

      This fall I commuted to work listening to “Born for Love: Why Empathy Is Essential–and Endangered” by Bruce D. Perry and Maia Szalavitz. It is a salient book on the topic of empathy and one that I recommend to educators at any level. As I listened to the stories and statistics I was reminded over and over of the power early childhood experiences have on the development of world view, self-esteem, and genuine regard for others. Because teachers on average spend over 1000 hours each year with their students, it seems reasonable to believe that teachers can have significant impact on their students in these areas as well. Perry and Szalavitz showcases a few specific to schools programs that are in place internationally to help develop empathy but would love to hear from others who are seeing success as teachers in terms of creating classroom cultures where students care for each other. Could it be that wise teachers could be the hope of America in terms of improving race/economic/etc. relations?

    • #72055
      AvatarLisa Baker

      Thank you for posting this book recommendation Margo. As a PreK teacher for ESE children at a Title 1 (high poverty) school, I see first hand the critical importance of teaching students empathy. In fact my Professional Growth Plan (PGP) for the past 3 years has been to increase social-emotional skills. All of the kindergarten teachers at my school agree that this is by far this most important and hardest skill to teach to incoming students. We use the Devereux Early Childhood Assessment (DECA) to measure social emotional progress. ( The DECA measures a child’s Total Protective Factors by measuring a child’s initiative self-regulation and attachment/relationships. Empathy stems from building an nurturing relationships. The most encouraging part of this discussion is that these skills, like all skills, can be taught, developed and nurtured. This is the wonderful thing about teaching. Teachers can develop this skill. We use a modified version of Dr. Becky Bailey’s “Conscious Discipline” in my classroom. We teach students to calm themselves through breathing techniques. We have a “kindness tree” to encourage and recognize kind acts in our classroom. The evidence in my classroom suggests that these strategies do work as my students regularly increase in all areas by 10-20 points by the end of the year. It is little things, done daily that I credit to these gains. This is one area that teachers can have to greatest impact! For more information on developing empathy in young children, I can recommend the article “How to Help Your Child Develop Empathy”

      Thank you for sharing this resource. I will add it to my reading list.

    • #72309
      AvatarAlicia Alvarez-Calderon

      The socio-emotional well being of a child should be a very important part in our curriculum Unfortunately our educational system has forgotten we are teaching children and not content. When children spend hour in front of a device (tablet, phone, computer, etc) they cannot learn the skills that are so necessary in life. Empathy is one of them but there are many others. Students need teachers to help them navigate their social lives but we are too busy teaching content needed for the test.

    • #72435
      AvatarLeAnn Nickelsen

      Thank you for sharing the book, Dr. Turner. I love this book – anything by Bruce Perry is going to help us understand the traumatized brain better. I’ve been studying the impact of empathy during the coaching process between an instructional coach and a teacher (so much research shows how effective coaching improves student achievement). Empathy is a key ingredient in order for coaches to connect with the teachers to help them grow. In fact, we listen to and respect those people who connect with us the most – Szalavits and Perry explain why empathy is essential in all relationships.

      Our personal empathy quota is not fixed – we can grow and learn this skill no matter how old we are! Here are a few tools that we can use to become more empathetic towards others:
      1. We need to understand our own feelings first – Why am I upset right now? Why am I joyful? Why did I just yell at that person? Why did I get defensive? Logging in a journal how certain interactions made you feel/respond is a good first step toward seeing some patterns about your feelings and responses.
      2. While the other person is speaking, listen as if you are becoming that person – get into his/her shoes. Try to mirror the person’s facial expressions and other non-verbals. Visualize yourself in that person’s situation.
      3. You truly have to the view person speaking as VERY important. This person can impact so many other people. When we view each person that talks to us as extremely important, we will value each word that is spoken and try to understand what is being said. This is a mindset.
      4. Jim Knight, author of Better Conversations (2016), shares a wonderful strategy called: Looking Back, Looking At, and Looking Ahead. When we are Looking Back, we think about the interactions we’ve had with people in the past and how these interactions helped or didn’t help the relationship. We ponder what we can learn from past interactions. When we are Looking At, we reflect on the interactions we are currently having with others – how we demonstrated or didn’t demonstrate empathy and the results of these actions. When we are Looking Ahead, we are visualizing ourselves using empathy-building skills with those we know and we predict the effects our actions can have on others. It’s creating a plan to become more empathetic.

      Before I coach teachers, I have an acronym to remind me how my mind should be set before I coach: MBAs. “M” stands for Mind the Gap (Google it so you can learn how to help people grow – first you must figure out the gap in their mind); “B” stands for Breathe calmly (when I’m calm, the other person may mirror my calmness – I hope!). “A” stands for Always show empathy (be present, lean forward, get into his/her shoes, actively listen, believe in this person, and paraphrase often). Finally, the “S” stands for Servant Leadership (this is another write-up for a later time). Empathy is so important that it became part of my mindset phrase to prime my brain to coach more effectively.

      I’ll end with a quote from an amazing Instructional Coach in Green River, WY, Carol Walker. She said: “If there’s no empathy, there’s no listening. You can be hearing things, but I don’t think you can be listening unless you have empathy.”

    • #72464

      So thankful for Dr. Turner, Lisa, Alicia and LeAnn for your kind sharing with great resources, factors we need to consider and suggested ways on the topic of helping students develop Empathy.

      Truly around the world there are still many people suffering on daily base from poverty, war, natural disastrous and abusive acts that happen in school, work place or even within family context. I strongly believe if more people having greater empathy may help reduce some of these tragic events and sufferings.

      I feel very grateful for learning from Prof. Arthur L. Costa and Dr. Bena Kallick the 16 Habits of Mind, where Listening with understanding and empathy is among one of them.

      While trying to understanding what are some brain areas that may help us develop Empathy, there are more studies that suggest the brain’s mirror neurons and amygdala play important roles in helping children to imitate the good acts of adults or characters and show empathy.
      Here is a link I find very inspiring:

      Once again, thanks for extending my understanding on this topic!!

    • #72544

      Thank you all for these suggestions and resources. I appreciate the hope we have as teachers that we are role models of how to care genuinely for another’s best … the golden rule lived out, “do to others as you would have them do to you”. To contrast this, our 5th grade twins this year are experiencing an interesting choice by their teachers that is not developing empathy. There are a small group of students who DAILY are not on target with behavior at lunch so the entire class has to miss recess time, stand silent in the halls, or do knee bends for 5 minutes (remember this is the perspective of 2 10 year olds…and there are 2 sides to every story). Instead of working together to solve the issue positively they along with their classmates are developing an “us vs. them” mentality. We talk through all of this at home and hope that they understand and live out how they could possibly help these students and the classmates.
      Class meetings are great places to develop empathy skills and opportunities. I appreciate William Glasser’s 3 types of class meetings: open-ended, diagnostic curriculum, and problem-solving (see more at As teachers and students sit in a circle and discuss important issues, etc. like lunchroom behavior, science fair ideas, weekend reading ideas, etc., they look at each other, listen to each other, and develop care for each other. All important components for creating positive interdependence (see Johnson and Johnson, Kagan, Jensen for more about cooperative learning). Responsive Classrooms calls these Morning Meetings and specifics are available at I use this approach with my teacher candidates, grad students, and our own children and believe it builds a “team” perspective that they will carry into their classrooms and lives.

    • #72626
      AvatarCraig Carson

      A hearty thank you to each of you for the resources and the conversation around teachers helping develop empathy within students. The basis of empathy is really one of understanding. You must seek to understand others around you. If a teacher intentionally practices the art of noticing, thinking aloud, and modeling understanding and empathy, students do begin to take on those noticing habits of mind as well. A teacher must also provide the opportunities for students to practice looking through the eyes of others accompanied with reflection. Empathy is all about teachers exercising affective instructional practices. A teacher cannot make a student empathize with others, but a teacher can have the student at least think actively within the affective realm and consider others’ viewpoints.

      In the last few years, professional magazines have heavily valued and reported on teaching empathy.

      One of the best ways that I have found, outside of modeling understanding and viewpoint, is to use great read alouds or think alouds. Linda Dorn and Karla Soffos during the UALR Center for Literacy Comprehensive Literacy Institute (2016) spent almost one fourth of the institute on creating thematic units at the elementary level to teach content while emphasizing empathy, understanding, and multicultural awareness. There are several book lists that will help teachers find great resources including the NCSS Notable Trade Books, Newberry and Caldecott medal lists, and others. Lowery & Baglier have a nice article within the Literacy Today May/June 2016.

      The International Literacy Association (ILA) November/December issue (2016) has a cover story about promoting social justice in our digital age. A key ingredient is that you have to have students “understand the concerns and plights of others” (p. 20). The author, Michael Hernandez, talks about helping students develop the mind-set of empathy. A key component is listening to the story of others and then in some manner process and reflect upon that story with multiple lenses.

      The most recent book published by ASCD for members was The Formative Five: Fostering grit, empathy, and other success skills every student needs, by Thomas R. Hoerr (2017). He is a fellow-Missourian which always makes me happy. : ) A very useful tool included in the book is a teacher self-assessment for teachers to take to judge their instructional practices around teaching empathy (p. 35). A sample question is, “Hearing a multitude of perspectives can be confusing to students.” Teachers would judge themselves on a Likert type scale as to how much they agree or disagree with that statement. The book is a good read.

      In effect, teachers must purposefully teach to activate the heart if they want students to learn to empathize with others. I look forward to following this chain of responses to see how others of you help your teachers influence the empathy within students.

    • #72661

      Thank you Craig for the info on the new ASCD book sounds really helpful…and I am glad you attended Linda Dorn’s workshop…she does speak much about empathy through literature/literacy teaching! Being from Arkansas also I always enjoy references to her!

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