Teacher empathy reduces school suspensions: 7 keys to growing today’s most important skill


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?



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How ‘serve and return’ relationships helped build your brain architecture

brain light from side

We all want to know that our existence is noticed.


One way to know this is to see that things you do cause a reaction in others.


Once someone responds to your presence, you know you exist.


Harvard calls this the ‘serve and return’.


Everything you do is a ‘serve’ – you say and do things to see how they will be ‘returned’.


When you were a child, you were sending serves to everyone around you,
and based on how they returned it, your brain responded,
and you created beliefs about yourself.


Every one of your relationships is a serve and return relationship. 


Every one in your life is sending you ‘serves’, and looking to see how you return them.


When you are not present, you can’t return their serve.


And when you don’t return their serve, the people in your life will let you know that you are doing this by:

  1. Amping up their behavior and creating more ‘drama’ or a ruckus, or
  2. Withdrawing from you and creating stories about how little value they add to your life.


When you are with someone and glancing at your phone…

when you are thinking about something else when someone is talking…


what you are saying is that:


“Your presence is not enough for me.  I’m afraid of missing something better over there.”


The other person feels this with every cell of their body.


Your biofeedback gives them the signal of your absence.


There is no such thing as partial or half presence.
You are either ‘there’ or not.


This ‘serve and return’ doesn’t just apply to your presence with people.
Your work and art and craft feel your lack of return too.


When you think of a writer writing a fantastic novel,
a scientist discovering a new revelation,
a musician surrendering to a new riff of music…


Do you see them wanting to be somewhere else?
Do you think they are thinking about what else they should be doing?


How often do you allow yourself to just surrender to being with that person,
or doing just that one thing.


At Thich Nhat Hanh’s monasteries, there is a rule:
You don’t walk and talk.  You stop to talk.  And then you walk.
You don’t eat and talk.  You eat.  And then you talk.


Multitasking is a myth. 


You cannot be doing one thing and be fully present with another.


You can switch back and forth, but the more you do,
the less you sink into the fullness of each moment.
and the less you can return someone’s serve.


What are you bringing to your relationships, to your craft, to your daily activities?
Are you allowing your mind to leave them?  Wondering about something else?


The next time you are with a loved one,
or working on something,
say to yourself :
“what is in front of me is enough”.  
They will feel this.
Be fully engaged with that person
or with the task at hand,
ready for their serve
so you can return it.
How do you return the serve of people in your life?
I would love to know (tell me in the comments section below)…


Other articles:

Where does fear really come from?


When we are young, we are very trusting.


This is a beautiful thing – children are so humble and open to what the world has to offer.


Where this can trip us up is that because our minds are so open, we begin forming beliefs about the world based on the extremely limited ‘data’ that surrounds us.

We aren’t surrounded by billions of opinions.

We are surrounded by a few.

We’re not surrounded by billions of ideas about what is good and bad, what love can look like, or about what our role is and what is good about us.


We are surrounded by a microscopic fraction of all of humanity’s perceptions.


From that microscopic dot, we form our beliefs.


Beliefs – by the way – are simply pathways formed in our brain as it tries to conserve energy and overgeneralizes basically everything into only two categories:


Threat to our life or not a threat to our life.


(fear or love)


According to our primal wiring, there’s no room for a grey area. Everything is either a threat to our life or not. We’re either in a state of love or fear.


So…. based on a microscopic dot of opinions and beliefs about who is ‘good’, about if we are ‘good’ or ‘bad’, valuable or disposable, disgusting or beautiful…


– we divide the world in two.


And then we become afraid of everything that our brain throws into the ‘threat’ category, including parts of ourselves – qualities and feelings that we think are ‘wrong’.


And we start to become afraid.


We become afraid of our own feelings.
And we become afraid of parts of ourselves, of our ‘bad emotions’, our ‘bad’ qualities.

We get scared that because we have angry, irritated, even aggressive thoughts – that somehow that makes us who we are.


We say to “have a feeling”, but then when we describe it we say “I am angry” – as though the feeling describes our entire being – rather than just an element of our wholeness.


How can we be brave when we are so afraid of our own feelings?


Not by trying to eliminate or remove these feelings from existence… but by figuring out how to integrate them all.


Anger is a beautiful emotion that fuels the fight against injustice.
It gives us a sense of boundary that preserves our dignity when someone treads on us.


Rejection, failure and sadness opens our heart to understand another’s pain and to detach temporarily from our ego.


What I am proposing is for us to not be so afraid of talking about the things we are afraid of.
I am proposing to not be so afraid of the ‘bad emotions’ and the ‘bad guys’, and the ‘bad events’ like failure and rejection…
…to look at them more deeply, and to look at how those ‘bad things’ can also be fuel for our growth and deep empathy.


Let’s keep talking about fear and disgust and hatred and rage and anger.


Let’s admit that we have felt fear, hatred, rage and anger. (I know I have.)
(and I believe that when we don’t acknowledge this, those feelings bubble under the surface, and come out as resentment, violence, and illness).


Let’s look at how our small irritations at others are ways for us disguise our own fears and hurts…


AND THEN… instead of shaming ourselves, let’s allow ourselves to see that even when we feel irritated and impatient and angry and afraid and humiliated and aggressive, it doesn’t make us a ‘bad’ person.


Because when we do that, we may have a better chance of loving the parts of ourselves we have disowned.


And when we do that, we have a better chance of showing others how to do this for themselves so that they can channel all the ‘bad’ feelings into passion and warriorship that stands up for truth and brave love.


I’d love to hear if you have ever experienced one of your ‘negative’ qualities as a gift? Or have seen this in someone else? Post your thoughts on the comments section here!


‘Agents of Authenticity’ and the Connection Economy

how am I connected?


The world is becoming more transparent.

Jonah Sachs, author of the Story Wars, calls them ‘agents of authenticity’ – people who will easily report any kind of activity that looks like an abuse of power.  Each person has the ability to spread a message instantly to millions of people around the world.  ‘Agents of authenticity’ are increasing in number and influence.


So even if you don’t care about the well-being of the rest of the planet, the world does.

And even if you don’t care if your child (or students) care about the well-being of the rest of the planet, the world does.

And the world can now see it.

And the world responds.

And even if your child doesn’t care about the well-being of the planet, it will become increasingly difficult for him or her to be successful or rise to the top without understanding how interconnected we all are.


Seth Godin calls our new economy the ‘connection economy’.

The  more we reflect on how connected we are, and how every system we know is interconnected to all other systems, the more innovative we become – and the more we create things that are relevant and remarkable.

Those are the criteria for the ‘new kind of success’ for a new economy that is relying less on industrialism and more on the connections we make with others.