Not all subjects taught in school are as cut-and-dried like math or history. Nonetheless, some of these more abstract subjects, particularly social skills, are crucial for both academic and social success. One such skill is empathy, the ability to both understand and share the feelings of others. In an article posted this month in Edutopia, authors Dr. Donna Wilson and Marcus Conyers discuss the importance empathy and proven strategies to teach the skill.
“Empathy has the capacity to transform individual lives for the better while helping to bring about positive social change in schools and communities worldwide.”
Psychologists break empathy down to two main categories: affective empathy and cognitive empathy. Affective empathy, or shared emotional response, is the kind experienced when someone shares another’s emotions (E.g. Jumping up and down and clapping when someone else scores a goal or crying when someone on screen experiences a heartbreak); whereas, cognitive empathy, also known as perspective taking, comes about when one has the ability to see the situation from another’s viewpoint.
In order to teach both affective and cognitive empathy, Wilson and Conyers recommend teachers follow four proven strategies.
In this method, teachers lead by example by being positive while learning and showing care for others’ feelings, which leads to the children to “mirror optimistic and confident learning behaviors.” We use a similar method to teach empathy through visuals called VideoModeling!
Teaching Point of View
A different point of view may often be the reason for an argument. Use real life examples of how having a different point of view was the reason behind a disagreement you have had. If you prefer to not share personal stories, try using others stories or techniques to emphasize the point, such as an exercise using the numbers 6 and 9.
First, have students look at the number 6 and then the number 9. Explain to students that the idea for this exercise came from an old Middle Eastern legend in which two princes were at war for many years. One prince looked at the image on the table and said it was a 6, while the other prince said it was a 9. For years the battle raged, and then one day when the princes were seated at the table a young boy turned the tablecloth around, and for the first time, they could see the other’s point of view. The war came to an end, and the princes became firm friends.
Follow up with a discussion as to why it is important to recognize that others may have different perspective and that could be the source of the disagreement. This is a common method used in our conflict resolution materials!
Using Literature to Teach Different Perspectives
Much of what children’s literature can be used to learn how perspectives can differ. One great example is the story of “The Three Little Pigs.”
“We sympathize with the pigs because we see the wolf as a ravenous villain, but is it possible to see the story from the wolf’s point of view? That’s exactly what Jon Scieszka undertakes in his book The True Story of the Three Little Pigs. In this humorous retelling, the wolf didn’t huff and puff to blow the pigs’ houses down; instead he suffered from a terrible allergy and, when stopping by to borrow a cup of sugar, accidentally blew the houses down with a big and powerful sneeze.”
Empathy is all about listening
A challenging, yet fundamental aspect of empathy is to be an effective listener. Marcus and Conyers have developed a clever strategy to help students devote their full attention to others: the HEAR strategy.
Halt: stop whatever you are doing and thinking to “free your mind” and focus on speaker.
Engage: Focus on whoever is speaking and even add a physical component (e.g. head tilt towards them) to show them how you are “engaged solely in listening.”
Anticipate: Look ahead to what speaker will say and “acknowledge that you will likely learn something new and interesting” which will make you more interested in what they have to say.
Replay: analyze and rephrase what has been said in your mind or aloud to help understand the speaker’s message
As students learn to be more empathetic, it is important that they are mindful of their own thoughts, feelings, and capability to understand and share those other others. Such metacognitive awareness makes students “more effective at taking another’s perspective throughout [their] lives.” Ultimately, the more empathetic student finds more opportunities for both academic and social success since when they are both comfortable and aware of themselves, they can focus on others and the situation at hand.
The child who is ‘left behind’ most is the one who leaves school without transition readiness.
Dr. James Stanfield, Ed.D.