This story is part of a two-part series on empathy curriculum. Read also: Change the World by Incorporating Empathy into Your Teaching
Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) is still relatively new in schools. While all 50 states in the U.S. have preschool competencies for SEL, and seven states have PreK-early elementary competencies, as of 2017, just eight states had articulated SEL competencies through 12th grade, according to CASEL, the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning. Illinois, Kansas, Maine, Michigan, Nevada, New Jersey, Rhode Island and West Virginia now have comprehensive K-12 standards for SEL.
Whether or not you teach in one of these states, you can infuse SEL values into your teaching and classroom environment beginning with empathy education. Here’s where to start with that:
1. Make connections and create a safe environment.
Feeling safe and connected in their classrooms is the only way students can learn. I put this at the top of the list for one simple reason; before incorporating anything into our classroom, we must ensure that all students feel safe and loved. Students need an environment in which they not only feel physically safe, but also mentally and emotionally safe. By establishing connections with students and families, we show them that we are all part of the same team.
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These connections and feelings of safety also need explicit words. From day one, it is important to tell and show kids how much you care about them. Kids are more willing to show vulnerability and acceptance of each other if they feel like their story matters. I tell my students this all the time. We can also create a safe environment by making mistakes and modeling for kids how we deal with mistakes in ways that focus on moving forward and growing as people. This shows students that we are humans just like them and makes us more approachable.
2. Be explicit.
Teaching about empathy needs to be explicit for it to be impactful. We often call out students’ actions to reinforce behaviors right as they are occurring. We say things like “I really appreciate how Miguel is working quietly and focused on his task.” Why? Because we want students to see positive behaviors being modeled. We may also do it because we want to reinforce positive behaviors from students who struggle.
This same concept applies to teaching empathy. It is very important, and in my experience very effective, when we call out moments of empathy as they occur. This can be as simple as “I love how Sarah turned and asked her partner what they thought first before sharing her answer.” This, along with an explanation of how inviting others to share their thoughts is an example of empathy, goes a long way. The ability to recognize these moments may come naturally for some but may require consistent practice for others.
I find that the best way to be explicit about empathy is to look for it everywhere—in your classroom, school, novel studies, math problems, science experiments, everywhere. After a while, your kids will become empathy experts themselves and will begin calling out examples of empathy they see. This could also be a topic for your daily, weekly, or monthly class meetings. Ask students when they’ve seen empathy and kindness being shown.
3. Give kids a voice.
In our class, we often joke about my students having the ability to run a country in much more effective ways than many adults. While the intricacies of adulthood aren’t quite there in my fifth-grade class, I have no doubt that my students would voice their opinions in kind, respectful, and empathetic ways. This is due in part to the fact that they feel they have a voice in our class.
Teaching empathy is about explicitly putting ourselves in others’ shoes and at least briefly seeing their story through their eyes. We must also model this by giving kids a voice, and a safe place to express their ideas, dreams, hopes, and fears. The power of giving kids a voice is immeasurable. I asked my students if they could share one thing with other teachers about empathy, what that would be. Students gave me a variety of answers, mostly surrounding one thing; teaching empathy should come from the heart. My students expressed how meaningful it is for them when their teacher shows love and passion for what they are learning. Give students a voice have courageous conversations, and most importantly, listen to them.
Further Reading: Social-Emotional Learning: How to Implement Reflection Rubrics
Students bring a vast range of backgrounds, experiences, problems, and concerns into our classroom. Encourage students to embrace diversity and foster an environment of tolerance. Kindness and empathy are desperately needed in our country today. We can do our part to make the world better by teaching empathy in our classrooms.