Why does it matter?
The YouthTruth Survey question “I can usually be myself around other students at this school” — which students answer on a Likert scale — is an important indicator of how included and appreciated students of all identities feel at school.
How to build empathy and strengthen your school community
Empathy is a key ingredient in being a caring community member that helps others to feel they are valued and that they belong. Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Making Caring Common Project has some expert tips to share with educators about why empathy is important and how to create more of it in schools. In addition to exploring what empathy really is and what barriers exist for developing it, the project lays out these five essential steps:
- When frustrated with students, pause and take a deep breath and try to see the situation from their perspective before responding.
- When a student is upset, reflect back his feelings or the rationale for his behavior before redirecting the behavior.
- Be aware of students’ non-verbal cues and follow up on them. For example, if a student is slumping in her chair and appearing withdrawn or angry, say something like “I noticed that you are quieter than usual today. Is something bothering you?” rather than immediately reprimanding her.
- Ask for students’ input when appropriate and feasible (for example, when establishing classroom rules or generating ideas for group projects) – and really listen. Find opportunities to incorporate their feedback and respond to their needs.
TEACH WHAT EMPATHY IS AND WHY IT MATTERS
- Clearly explain that empathy means understanding and caring about another person’s feelings and taking action to help. Explain how it improves the classroom and school community.
- Stress the importance of noticing and having empathy for people beyond immediate friends, including those who are different or who are too often invisible.
- Give examples of how to act on empathy, such as helping, showing kindness, or even simply listening.
- Create opportunities to practice taking another’s perspective and imagining what others are thinking. Play charades and do role plays, read and discuss books, and use “what would you do” style vignettes or case studies.
- Name the barriers to empathy, like stereotypes, stress, or fears of social consequences for helping an unpopular peer. Share specific strategies to overcome them. For example, encourage students to privately offer kind and supportive words to a student who was bullied.
- Foster emotional and social skills, like dealing with anger and frustration and solving conflicts. Use an evidence-based social and emotional learning (SEL) program and teach specific routines for calming down and resolving disputes. Use advisories and guidance counseling to develop social and ethical skills.
SET CLEAR ETHICAL EXPECTATIONS
- Be clear that you expect students to care about one another and the entire school community. Don’t just put it in the mission statement or on a poster – talk about it, model it, praise it, and hold students to it.
- Do an exercise with students to help them reflect on who is inside and outside their circle. Discuss why and how they can expand the circle of who they care about.
- Establish specific guidelines for unacceptable language and behaviors. Ban slurs or hurtful language like “that’s retarded” or “he’s so gay,” even when said ironically or in jest — and step in if you hear them. Encourage students to think about why these words can be hurtful.
- Enlist students in establishing rules and holding each other accountable.
- Use restorative justice practices and peer mediation when conflicts arise.
MAKE SCHOOL CULTURE AND CLIMATE A PRIORITY
- Collect data from students and staff at least once a year about whether they feel safe, respected, and cared about at school.
- Take time to examine the data and make efforts to address problem areas identified by students and staff.
- Avoid over-emphasizing comparative evaluation, getting ahead by beating others, or other pressures that can erode trust and undermine empathy.