A recent study from Stanford University showed that training teachers to have more empathy
towards students reduced school suspensions by more than 50%.
And guess what? The training for teachers consisted of a mere two online sessions – a 45 minute and a 25-minute session.
Empathy is also rated as “the most valuable thing they teach at Harvard Business School“.
Tony Wagner, Expert in Residence at the Harvard Innovation Lab, lists Empathy as an essential skill
that helps students become innovators (he even talks about it on twitter)
So how can we bring this to our school?
Here are a few suggestions inspired by a paper from the Harvard School of Education”
1. Model empathy
2. Teach what empathy is and what it isn’t
3. Practice it
4. Discuss how and why students should expand their circle about who they care about
(watch my youtube on what this does in the brain)
5. Make school/classroom climate and emotional safety a high priority
To help you with a few of these points, here are 7 keys to understanding what empathy is,
what it’s not, amd why it matters.
What is empathy?
#1) Empathy is not a behavior. It’s not a strategy.
It’s a way of seeing.
It’s seeing someone as being more like you than unlike.
#2) Empathy is not sympathy.
As Brene Brown puts it, sympathy is the feeling of “you poor thing”, which puts you
as the ‘strong one’ and them as puny and weak.
#3) Empathy is about the feeling of “me too.” “I’ve been there”.
It’s about digging deep into your own vulnerable psyche, past the ego, to the place where you can say
“I can see myself feeling just like you are feeling right now.”
It’s about seeing life from their eyes.
When we do this, it becomes natural to, as resilience expert Dr. Robert Brooks puts it,
“rather then deny or dismiss their struggles, see their strengths and beauty”.
#4) Empathy is a strengths-based approach.
Empathy is about seeing a person who is behaving ‘badly’ as someone who is overwhelmed
by their own feelings. And when you can say “I’ve been there too”, it confirms that you know
the other person can handle and survive what they’re going through- because you have done so.
#5) Empathy is a muscle that grows with use.
(just like all other skills and character traits, we can develop ‘high-speed’ brain pathways for them
by intentionally practicing them over and over).
#6) Empathy is not a proclamation, it’s a process of courageously seeing
how alike you are to another person.
It requires you to drop your ego.
The more regularly you can “say me too”, the more you’ll see how much vulnerability we all share as human beings.
Empathy is about allowing yourself to try to feel what another person is feeling to the point
where you gain access to the subconscious parts of your own experiences.
These subconscious memories can then help you come up with the words that
you most needed to hear when you felt that way too.
Which then gives you the awareness of how to say something to someone that can actually
help them move through what they need to.
#7) Empathy is not a ‘bonus’ skill to teach or work on only when you have time.
Particularly in today’s digital world, it should be a mandatory part of curriculum and teacher training.
Increasing numbers of research studies show that a huge factor of student happiness, engagement
and success is tied to a teacher’s ability to empathize.
It’s also considered by top business schools like Harvard and Stanford, as one of the most important skills
to learn for the “Connection and Innovation Economy” that we now live in
(very different than the old industrial economy of our parents and grandparents).
To sum up Harvard’s suggestions about bringing empathy into your school:
Model it. Teach it. Practice it. Discuss it. Make it a priority.
“We are more alike my friends, than we are unalike”. – Maya Angelou
Let me know in the comments if you’ve ever experienced the difference between sympathy and empathy – how did it feel?
Want to spark more empathy and growth mindsets in your classroom or community?
Join the Growth Mindset self-study course!
for educators and parents who want to increase social emotional skills and growth mindsets in young people.