Students are stressed. Help requires empathy.

teaching empathy to relieve student stress

Students are more stressed than ever.

As students face more social, technological, and academic pressures, anxiety is taking both a physical and emotional toll. Just how stressed are students? Recent research suggests today’s learners contend with more stress day to day than many adults.

It’s an untenable situation.

That’s why many school districts are looking for new ways to not only reduce the pressure felt by students, but also equip them with tools for dealing with stress as it builds.

Empathy is a major player in stress reduction, suggests psychologist Juli Fraga in a recent article for Mind/Shift.

Students, especially teenagers, are already living in a heightened emotional state, Fraga writes. Adding additional stresspoints increases that emotional intensity. Helping students understand both their own personal emotions and those of others around them is important—and it can be accomplished through something called “cognitive empathy,” explains Fraga:

“Because teenagers are so emotionally driven, they may be prone to react in exaggerated ways. Hence, a conflict with a teacher, a clash with a friend or an unanswered text can feel like the end of the world. By strengthening their cognitive empathy, teens can develop an emotional pause button, which reminds them that even when feelings take over, stressful circumstances are temporary.”

Teaching cognitive empathy

Stress can come from anywhere, Fraga says—an emotional interaction with a teacher or parent, a challenging assignment, even a missed phone call. These events often leave students feeling as if there is no relief from the anxiety and that no one else—especially adults—can relate to what they’re feeling.

This is where cognitive empathy comes in.

While empathy is the way that humans emotionally relate to other humans, cognitive empathy goes a step further in an attempt “to understand someone else’s perspective and how they perceive the world, even when our feelings differ,” Fraga writes.

This is a vital skill, especially for adolescents. A series of studies from 2015 found that humans tend to show less empathy when faced with a stressful or anxiety-inducing situation. So equipping teens to deal with stress through empathy rather than facing stress by simply being less empathetic could prove valuable.

Fraga cites two studies that show the promise of cognitive empathy to relieve student stress.

In the Netherlands, researchers found that teaching students cognitive empathy can help them better control their emotions and improve their listening skills. A recent University of Texas study found that cognitive empathy also helps students better understand that emotions and situations can change, which can make it easier to deal with stress in the moment.

What about adults?

Parents and educators have an important role to play in reducing student stress.

Fraga and other experts say that parents and teachers often fail to relieve student stress, because they focus too hard on trying to solve students’ problems.

Want more on the importance of empathy in schools? Read Empathy isn’t sympathy. Why schools need to understand that.

Instead, experts say, adults should focus on improving their own empathy by demonstrating that they understand what their students are going through and by connecting with them emotionally.

In schools, reducing stress through empathy happens primarily two ways:

  1. By teaching students the important cognitive empathy skills needed to understand others and deal with stress in a healthy way.
  2. By training parents and staff to use empathy to better so they can relate to students— not by trying to solve their problems, but by understanding students’ emotions and being there to support them.

Do your team members use empathy to relieve student stress? What steps are you taking to help parents and staff make empathy a priority in your district? Tell us in the comments.

About the Author

Todd Kominiak
Todd is Managing Editor of TrustED. Email: tkominiak@k12insight.com.

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