Teaching empathy when empathy is hard to find

social emotional learning empathy

Anxiety. Stress. Bullying. Suicide. Violent protests. Shootings. Fake news. The world that students are grappling with is both scary and challenging. To help students navigate young adulthood and make sense of the headlines and what they see and hear around them, school leaders everywhere are integrating lessons on empathy into the school experience, either in the classroom or beyond it.

For the past five years, Greenwich Public Schools in Connecticut has used the Second Step program in its middle schools, providing  a curriculum of web-based lessons about respect, empathy, and tolerance. They dedicate full mornings to activities promoting social-emotional learning (SEL), and school leaders are seeing positive results.

“We are seeing an increase in kids knowing they have adults to go to, feeling welcome in the building; they feel honored. They feel more comfortable with who they are, which is so important in middle school,” Suzanne Coyne, assistant principal at Western Middle, told Greenwich Time.

Connecticut isn’t the only state where education leaders are embracing empathy in their schools.

Maryland’s Arundel High School introduced a semester-long course called Community Citizenship. It’s a required class for freshmen and covers topics such as building community and fostering citizenship. And Howard County Public Schools is developing an elective class for high schoolers that covers civil discourse and ethics.

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“It’s about civil discourse in the classroom and having the facts to support opinions,” Mark Stout, coordinator for Advanced Placement and secondary social studies in Howard County, told The Baltimore Sun. “Kids are just dying to talk about these things, and we shouldn’t stifle it. But we have to teach them to talk about it respectively.”

Robert Cowles, a history teacher in Clark County School District’s Rancho High School, told the Las Vegas Review-Journal that since the Oct. 1 mass shooting at the Route 91 Harvest country music festival he has dedicated a good portion of class time to providing a safe space for students to ask questions and share their thoughts. Some students had come across online content about the shooting, including rumors and videos, that led to meaningful and relevant classroom discussions.

“Part of it is putting it in perspective, because that’s what we’re there to do,” Cowles told the Las Vegas Review-Journal. “Listen to what they have to say, talk with them, don’t try to hide anything from them but don’t let them get hit with it full on either.”

With the violent protests in Charlottesville, Va., occurring just before the school year started, teachers in Charlottesville City Schools knew their students would need help to make sense of what happened.

“I don’t know what students saw, what kind of conversations they’ve had,” teacher Nikki Franklin told U.S. News and World Report in August. “I don’t know exactly what situations will come up. I realize that this year is going to be different. I can’t tell you exactly how.”

Questions arose across the nation about how to address the protests in academic settings, reigniting a conversation among educators about their responsibility to present—and help students make sense of—the facts.

“I think what we have to do is help [students] come to good conclusions using good information, good news and certainly bringing a historical perspective to bear on it as well,” Zach Bullock, chairman of the history and social sciences department at Charlottesville High School, told U.S. News and World Report.

Out of the events in Charlottesville came the hashtag #CharlottesvilleCurriculum, which is a way for educators to share resources to help bring this teachable moment into their classrooms. Other programs, such as A Mile in Our Shoes from Newsela and Teaching Tolerance, offer additional classroom resources to make empathy a standard part of classroom instruction.

“Teachers do a lot of things that they’re not paid to do, and one of those things is teaching empathy,” Matt Gross, CEO of Newsela, told Fortune. “[It’s] not in a teacher’s job description. But more than ever, they realize that something has changed and their roles have changed as well.”

While the lasting impact of these efforts is difficult to measure, teaching empathy in schools is gaining momentum because it offers students a solid foundation in an ever-changing world.

As Bill Drayton, founder and CEO of Ashoka: Innovators for the Public, says:

“The rules of this new world are still undefined. They are in a state of flux and as the world becomes more complex, the original rules don’t apply. In this world, where value is first in contributing to change, people need different skills. They must master empathy first; it is the foundation of everything else.”

What steps are you taking to engage students in conversations around empathy? Do you include empathy in your classrooms? Do students have a way to reach you if they have questions about what they are seeing and hearing? Tell us in the comments.

About the Author

Kyle Freelander
Kyle Freelander is a Communications Specialist at K12 Insight.

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