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Why Teaching Empathy in Our Pandemic Classrooms is More Important Now Than Ever Before

“Empathy fuels connection, sympathy drives disconnection” -Brené Brown

Teachers, just in case you’ve forgotten, this is the third school year to have altered what education looks like in your classroom. Regardless of what age you teach, your students haven’t experienced a normal school year for some time now. Our students have had varying degrees of online education, struggled to make conversation with their peers while wearing masks and perhaps even missed school because they, or someone they came into contact with, contracted Covid. Whichever of these you and your students have struggled with, the social experience that typically comes with education looks so incredibly different from what it used to be. There has never been a time more suited for teaching empathy in our classrooms to help give our students the tools to support and connect with each other.

Warm Up to Empathy

Ask your students to imagine a time when they were having a tough day or were going through a challenging moment in their lives. Follow up that visualization with two questions: 1) What are the things people say to us in these moments that are helpful and make us feel supported? and 2) What are the things people say to us in these moments that are not helpful, maybe even cause pain? Collect the answers, maybe have students write them on the whiteboard or use to collect their responses. Ask students to elaborate on each category, following up with “When someone says ___ to you, how does that make you feel?” Maybe even using the emotion wheel discussed in a previous article.

I’ll stop right now and say that if you haven’t seen this RSA short video taken from a segment of a lecture Brené Brown gave, please stop reading and watch. This video outlines the important distinction between sympathy and empathy and just how much more connection is created when we give an empathetic response to someone’s pain. Show this to your students and afterwards go back to their responses, they will easily be able to identify many of their examples as either sympathetic or empathetic.

Practice Makes Progress

Now that students are a little more fluent in the difference between sympathy and empathy, time to practice empathetic responses and what it might look like in their daily lives as students. In the video above Dr. Brown mentions Theresa Wiseman’s four components to expressing empathy:

  1. Perspective taking

  2. Staying out of judgement

  3. Recognizing emotions in others

  4. Communicating that emotion to them

Here is a scenario you can give to your students to practice what each of these steps looks like in practice (or what the opposite of each might look like):

At lunch you notice a friend of yours who you’re not super close with sitting alone, the friends she typically sits with are at a different table. While they appear normal, even laughing with one another, you notice your friend slumped over, head buried in her hands with her lunch pushed to the side. You decide to sit next to her and ask ‘is everything ok?’

Ask your students first what a sympathetic response might look like and how it might feel if they were in that position to receive that response. Then walk through Teresa Wiseman’s attributes of empathy:

  1. How can you take your friend’s perspective? What would you need to do in order to understand her perspective?

  2. What might you need to do to stay out of judgement as she responds to you? On the flipside, how might it be easy to jump to conclusions?

  3. What emotions might she be feeling? What might tip you off to the emotions she might be feeling?

  4. How can you communicate to your friend that you are concerned about her based on the emotions you notice? How can you do this carefully just in case you read the wrong emotions from your friend?

Granted, your school’s lunch environment might not allow for the scenario above to actually happen, but trust me, your students can relate. An important thing to remember about empathy is that you don’t need to have experienced the situation of being left out of a friend group at lunch to express empathy. Your students know what it feels like to feel lonely and the desire to be a part of a group. It is from drawing on these past experiences and emotions that you can express empathy, but warn your students that this can easily pollute empathy by reaching out to someone, placing yourself in a memory of isolation, and making the moment more about your past pain than the present pain of whoever you’re reaching out to. Then you’ve only furthered the disconnection they are feeling.

Our schools, classrooms, and lessons have changed in many ways since the pandemic began. As we endure many of the changes we can’t control, we can shape how students connect with each other for the better by teaching what empathy is and the tangible steps for what it looks like in practice. What education will look like next month or next year is still unknown but if our students can meet it with the tools to effectively connect with one another, they will be better able to navigate it knowing that they have each other to support them through it.


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