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The Role of Empathy in the Classroom

Communication through a screen was already becoming the norm before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and now it’s our most used form of communication. Hiding behind aliases, people feel empowered to engage with strangers from anonymous accounts. Violent language is commonplace in online forums and social media channels, affecting children and teenagers in ways that are yet unmeasurable. Teaching empathy as an essential part of classroom activities has, therefore, become imperative.

Empathy and Creativity

Recent discussions about racial justice activism and anti-sexual assault efforts have brought up several issues regarding empathy and “allyship.” Many adults who have followed these movements unfolding have found the need to re-educate themselves in order to “put themselves in the other person’s shoes.” However, learning empathy in childhood can be of great help in tackling many of these situations early on. The benefits go far beyond the ethical and moral realms, as those who have studied within an empathy-focused curriculum demonstrate increased levels of creativity, a University of Cambridge study shows.

The study followed two London schools — one with a standard curriculum and the other with specialized classes — focused on “engineering design thinking tools which aim to foster students’ ability to think creatively and to engender empathy, while solving real-world problems.” Using several tests to indicate cognitive and emotional empathy, the results were astounding: the creativity score of the specialized school pupils was 78% higher than those in the standard curriculum. The authors of the report conclude, “encouraging empathy not only improves creativity, but can deepen pupils’ general engagement with learning.”

Several experts have backed up this affirmation. “It’s not surprising then that empathetic students do better after their schooling as well,” writes Beverly Amico for Waldorf Education. “The authors of Emotional Intelligence 2.0, Travis Bradberry and Jean Greaves, found people with high emotional intelligence and empathy (which they call EQ) made an average of $29,000 more each year and they also attributed EQ to having a 58% influence over job performance.”

Aside from a boost in creativity and higher salaries, another study points out that emotional intelligence is highly beneficial to one’s professional future. Empathy is considered a “soft skill” and a highly desirable trait in jobs that demand cooperation, group work and good communication, among others.

Empathy and Curriculum

However impressive the results of these studies are, it still is unclear to some teachers how to address this gap in the curriculum. A good place to start is the Compassion Project: an initiative that focuses on elementary school students and helps them understand the concept of compassion and apply it to their daily lives. For interested teachers, its website offers many resources.

This is only the starting point: there are several learning competencies that educators can adopt for their classrooms. Exercises in emotional literacy can help students identify emotions clearly and recognize when others feel similarly to them. Shifts of perspective — encouraging kids to play different roles or write from another perspective — can also be useful. Just because someone else is different than us does not necessarily mean that we can’t understand them.

Finally, kindness is key. Teaching kids to be kind to one another is an invaluable lesson. It makes the giver feel useful, and the receiver feel seen. To truly exercise empathy, it is important to know that even if you don’t understand what someone is experiencing, you can understand that they are going through something and extend a helping hand.

Learn more about Arkansas State University’s Master of Science in Education in Curriculum & Instruction online program.


Phys.Org: Teaching Pupils Empathy Measurably Improves Their Creative Abilities

ResearchGate: Emotional Intelligence: Implications for Personal, Social, Academic, and Workplace Success

The Compassion Project

Waldorf Education: Teaching Empathy: Essential for Students, Crucial for Humanity

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