Why Teaching Empathy in the Classroom Can Make Students Better Learners

Empathy is one of the main drivers of human behavior. It impacts the big stuff, like the way we form relationships or choose a career path, but it also motivates small daily decisions like merging on the highway or tipping the barista. While we’ve always known the value of empathy, we’ve only recently learned of its connection to education. 

What the Science Says

Researchers at McGill University have established a direct line between empathy and our capacity for learning. When lab rats provided gentle grooming and reassurance to their stressed out babies, they went on to develop higher IQs than the rats who were not extended the same kindness. After just a few weeks, the babies who were comforted by their mothers were more confident than their peers and better at navigating mazes.

These findings mimic what we’ve seen in the real world for centuries according to Children who are encouraged to play, grow and explore with confidence tend to be better prepared for school. Stress, on the other hand, can limit a child’s capacity for growth. When poor and neglected kids fail to receive this kind of encouragement, they can quickly fall behind their peers. 

Empathy in the Classroom

Consider the most effective lessons from your own school days. Chances are good they involved empathy in some form. Roleplaying activities where students imagine themselves as characters in a story or as historical figures require kids to walk a mile in the shoes of someone else. These kinds of lessons foster insight into the perspectives of others, promoting open-mindedness and flexibility said

Collaboration can have a similar effect on students. Group projects often force dissimilar students to team up for a common goal. By working together with someone they previously knew little about, students have their worldviews challenged in healthy ways. Even if the students don’t complete the project as friends, they may develop slightly more patience and understanding of their peers.

Empathy Barriers

While empathy is easy enough to understand in theory, teaching it to kids isn’t always straightforward. When students feel different or misunderstood, exercises intended to inspire empathy can sometimes have the opposite effect. These students might feel overwhelmed when forced to work with a partner they don’t know well, or become stressed out when tasked with considering the worldview of others.

Thankfully, there are steps educators can take to help students overcome these barriers to empathy. By identifying stereotypes in real time, teachers can help their students reject prejudice. Modeling respect is crucial to the process – kids can’t value differences if they aren’t shown how to do so first. Teachers can also work to become better listeners, taking time to really hear the concerns and frustrations of their students. Even one kind ear can convert a close-minded student into an empathetic one.

Action Items for Educators

If you’re hoping to instill more empathy in your students, begin by modeling the kinds of behaviors you’d like to see them develop. When you become impatient with the class, for instance, take time to pause and breathe deeply before proceeding. Work through your efforts to understand their point of view aloud. Take notice of non-verbal cues from students and point them out when appropriate. For instance, if you notice a student is more frustrated or angry than usual, pull them aside to ask about their mood without reprimanding them. Just noticing behavior and modeling empathy is a great first step towards a more empathetic classroom culture. 

Of course, kids also require clear tutelage on exactly what defines empathy. In addition to your modeling efforts, work to fully explain the definition of empathy and examples students can recognize in their own lives. Highlight the importance of having empathy for friends as well as for people they don’t know as well. Give examples as to how to express empathy in their daily lives, like listening when someone is upset or showing kindness to someone in need. 

Empathy will come more naturally to some students than others, but the key is to maintain your expectations for students throughout the academic year. Don’t let empathy be a unit you cover in a single afternoon and move on from quickly. Instead, foster a culture of empathy within your classroom and school at large. You’ll see it pay off in spades, both inside your classroom and out in the world.