In a perfect world, empathy is one of those skills that would be taught in the home, the best people to teach it would be the parents, and it would start as early as infancy. It would continue to flourish and bloom, and spill over into every day moments at school - moments where the child would naturally pick that one odd kid who never gets picked as a reading partner, just because he wants her to feel included. Our days would be full of beautiful, memorable moments. We would have less fires to put out, and more time to actually teach. Educators – #amiright?
Empathy: the ability to feel, imagine, and/or share another person’s emotional experience. The field of psychology has shown us many times over that the formation of empathy begins in infancy. Even a young toddler, when faced with an upset parent, might offer his parent a favorite toy or “lovie.” It’s still unclear whether the child is just reacting, or truly understands that his mother is upset and wants to comfort her with something that in the past has comforted him.
I remember skeptically studying this phenomenon as a psychology undergrad at Meredith College, and later experiencing it as a first-time parent. I was upset and crying, my barely 2-year old son saw me, ran out of the room, and ran back in clutching his “paci.” When he reached for me, I picked him up and he tried to put his “paci” in my mouth – or rather, uh, shoved it. Come to think of it, he somewhat forcefully shoved it towards my down-turned mouth. But, being a first time parent, I was convinced that of course my child absolutely knew the meaning of empathy. Further, he not only knew it, but knew how to demonstrate it as well – without my even having to teach it, because he was a genius. (Looking back on the situation some three kids later, I’ve changed my thought process just a bit.)
All joking aside, the truth of the matter is that as educators, with another new school year dawning upon us, we have to meet all children where they are. And honestly, they don’t all come to us with the skill of empathy set firmly in place. There is no doubt that children who are empathetic perform better in school, within social situations, and even into adulthood, whether in their careers, or raising their own families, or both. But some kids, for any combination of reasons, come to us without that skill. They may bring bags full of much-needed school supplies on the first day, but may be lacking the most basic and important school supply of all: empathy. And it’s our duty to teach them, for the betterment of humanity. It takes a village, right?
But how? How do we teach empathy to kids – or even teenagers – who have yet to learn this crucial skill? Well, the hopeful news is that the good folks at Kleenex, in partnership with some key members of The Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence have figured out one simple way.
Lori Nathanson, Ph.D., and Shauna Tominey, Ph.D. both of The Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, conducted a study on 5th grade students nearing the end of their elementary career. The study shed light on the concept of widespread, mutual anxiety, and feelings of being “the only one,” despite heaps of literature and media outlets that portray back-to-school season as a happy, positive time of new supplies and fresh starts. Drs. Nathanson and Tominey began their study, the “Commitment to Care” social experiment with the hypothesis that if students were given the space to talk about their emotions, and the tools to share and show empathy (in this case, they created “Kleenex Care Kits”), then the students would feel less alone and more confident about entering middle school. They were absolutely right.
They hosted a workshop sponsored by Kleenex brand for a group of 5th grade students during their last week of elementary school, about to enter middle school. Before their first workshop, students were able to compile a list of 54 unique and mixed emotions that they were experiencing about entering middle school. Additionally, 87% of them reported feeling worry (a little or a lot) and 76% experienced stress about entering middle school. Specifically, their highest concerns were what adults might imagine: getting to class on time, getting lost in a new school, and receiving bad grades. Just behind that, though, were significant worries about not fitting in with new classmates, and being judged by others.
During the workshop, the students were taught pro-social strategies. One of those pro-social strategies was having the students make “Kleenex Care Kits.” They were given kits that included Kleenex® Slim Wallets and custom sticker wrappings where they could write and share a message with someone in their life. They were given no guidelines as to whom they should give them, or how many they could give out. As one might assume, students started out sharing fun messages with those they already knew well or were already friends with. But what Drs. Nathanson and Tominey found was that the longer the experiment went on, the more empathy the students showed, by giving Kleenex Care Kits to teachers, and even extending them out to kids they didn’t know as well. They shared messages that conveyed words of hope, from “you did it!” to “you’re not alone.” The experimenters were able to watch the kids have these amazing moments of discovery, finding who else they could reach out to next.
After the workshop, students reported feeling more excited, confident, happy, and “chill” about entering middle school. An extraordinary 77% of participants shared that the simple act of making Kleenex Care Kits made something change for the better. It helped to start conversations about the feelings they were all experiencing regarding middle school. They felt less alone about their mixed feelings related to starting middle school, and additionally, making the Kleenex Care Kits taught them new strategies to manage their concerns about middle school. They learned to take their frustrations and concerns, label them, talk about them, share them, and connect with them. Ultimately, they learned how to show empathy in a constructive and meaningful way.
For teachers who are already overworked and underpaid, how can we manage adding one more thing to their agendas? Well, according to Drs. Nathanson and Tominey, empathy has to be thought of as an integral part of the day. We have to refrain from ignoring, and instead focus on emotional moments throughout the day, validate them, and integrate the language of emotions into everything we do. We can’t just talk about empathy in one thirty minute lesson one afternoon.
Some teachers already do this naturally by having their students make connections during reading or history lessons, regarding how all the story’s characters might be feeling. Other teachers may do this by validating students’ anxiety levels prior to math tests. Simply by acknowledging their feelings, having them stretch a bit, sit up, and breathe deeply can make all the difference in the world. During science or math, acknowledging words like “frustration,” “discovery,” and “curiosity,” and sharing some of your own struggles from school can help lay a foundation for empathy as well. One thing you can definitely do is have a room parent or volunteer sign up to bring in a bundle of Kleenex® Slim Wallets and post-it notes, and let your students recreate the “Commitment to Care” social experiment during morning work time.
What other practical ideas can we use in the classroom, aside from modeling? Here are a few to jump-start your thinking:
- Have students in older grades make and display for the younger grades reminders to treat each other well. Older kids = instant role models.
- Let students role-play various social situations, whenever possible.
- Let students keep a post-it note on their desks. Their task is to notice something good or nice about someone they don’t know very well and write it down on the post-it note. Collect them all at the end of the day (or week). At the beginning of the next day or week, deliver them to their recipients. Or, hold on to them and pass out when a particular student needs a boost.
- Engage in class service projects, or have students write thank you notes to staff members who don’t hear the words “thank you” often enough.
- Label your own emotions. Be sure to give the “happy” ones equal opportunity. Think: “I know testing can be stressful. Even though you didn’t pass, it made me very happy to see how hard you were focusing on reading the word problems,” as opposed to, “I’m so upset with you. You failed the test. You knew these answers!”
As we enter school this year amidst a very politically charged season, empathy is the one school supply that everyone can and should bring to school. If you are at all invested in the life of a student, whether you’re a parent, bus driver, principal, teacher, sibling, crossing guard, custodian, volunteer, superintendent, or even a student, challenge yourself to seek empathy, show empathy, or teach empathy. It’s the most in-demand item right now, and it’s totally affordable. In fact, it’s free.