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Everyday Ways to Teach Empathy

Deidre Bennett's picture


     “The most valuable things in life are not measured in monetary terms. The really important things are not houses and lands, stocks and bonds, automobiles and real state, but friendships, trust, confidence, empathy, mercy, love and faith.

 Bertrand Russell quotes

After explaining exactly what empathy is the next stage is to come up with ways to effectively teach it to our students One of the easiest lessons to teach children is the use of I statements

An Empathy-Building Exercise One of teacher/author David A. Levine's activities for helping students develop empathy is called the Event Empathy Action (EEA) (Copyright David A. Levine). The EEA is a three-step advanced listening approach that teaches students how to respond to others empathically. When something unfortunate, disappointing, or sad (a family separation, doing poorly on a test, being embarrassed in front of others) happens in another person's life, suggest students ask themselves these open-ended question about the person and event: * What happened? (identify the event) * How is that person feeling? (an understanding the other person's feelings leads to empathy) * What will I do? (decide on a specific action to respond to the event) The EEA method is presented to the group using empathic situations, which are hypothetical scenarios a class can discuss in order to explore various empathic responses. The hope is that in time children will naturally respond to others with empathy after thinking through these three questions.
  Allow children to talk about their feelings. Let him know that you care about how he feels by listening intently. If he has a story about someone else ("Tommy got in trouble for shoving Therese, and I don't think that was fair"), listen to his views before offering your own. And when he says he's mad, paraphrase what he says — "Oh, you're feeling grumpy today?" — so he knows you're listening and feels encouraged to elaborate.  

Additionally children need to be taught the basic rules of politeness  Children are constantly taking cues from those around of how to interact with others. All adults must model through our own interactions with each other politeness.  One of the most important things we can do is not talk in a harmful or disrespectful way about others. Good manners are a concrete way for your grade-schooler to show caring and respect for others. "Please" and "thank you" are phrases that school-age kids can and should be expected to use automatically. Explain to your child that you're more inclined to hand over his sandwich when he asks for it politely and that you don't like it when he orders you around. Even if these phrases sound rote at times, they teach kids how important it is to treat others with respect. Of course, being polite to him is worth a thousand rules and explanations. Say "please" and "thank you" regularly to your grade-schooler and to others, and he'll learn that these phrases are part of normal communication, both at home and out in public.

Reinforcing Empathetic Behavior Reinforcing empathetic behavior goes hand in hand with teaching manners. If we do not highlight empathetic behaviors such as sharing and kindness then what message are we sending our children.  Children should be given specific praise when empathetic behaviors are observed.

Thinking of others In our society too often we are taught to think of our selves first or how to better ourselves.  Our society is one that fosters the advancement of self. With this mindset it is no wonder that we forget to help each other, especially those less fortunate Involving children in volunteer and charity work may help to build a sense of community. Children can develop empathy for those who are not like themselves. This is important because we sometimes fear what we do not know. Also only when working as a unit do we really advance our society.   

The below example highlights just this. Giving When it Counts_ Many years ago, when I worked as a volunteer at a hospital, I got to know a little girl named Liz who was suffering from a rare & serious disease. Her only chance of recovery appeared to be a blood transfusion from her 5-year old brother, who had miraculously survived the same disease and had developed the antibodies needed to combat the illness. The doctor explained the situation to her little brother, and asked the little boy if he would be willing to give his blood to his sister.  I saw him hesitate for only a moment before taking a deep breath and saying, "Yes I'll do it if it will save her." As the transfusion progressed, he lay in bed next to his sister and smiled, as we all did, seeing the color returning to her cheek. Then his face grew pale and his smile faded. He looked up at the doctor and asked with a trembling voice, "Will I start to die right away". Being young, the little boy had misunderstood the doctor; he thought he was going to have to give his sister all of his blood in order to save her.

Teach and expect the same from boys and girls Again, society had determined what emotions/ behaviors are appropriate for boys and which are appropriate for girls. It is taught for boys to follow a "boy code" of toughness and never showing "weakness" This sets them up not to be as empathetic as girls.  Fortunately for us empathy can be learned regardless of gender.  Boys are as capable of learning it as girls.



Serendip Visitor's picture

Good article. I think empathy

Good article. I think empathy is hard to teach. Caring, respect and manners are good basic tools for kids to begin to undersand how to be sympathetic however true sincere empathy can not be learned. It comes from being able to relate to anothers feelings mutually becuase of a shared similar experience or thoughts. Many inner city kids can empathize with one another becuase of similar backgrounds but they have to be taught to understand what those emotions are and where they come from in order to relate them to others in similar situations.