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Empathy: The Most Important Back-to-School Supply

Empathy: The Most Important Back-to-School Supply

18 August, 2016

The most important back-to-school supply doesn’t fit in a backpack, and it can’t be ordered online- it’s empathy.

Empathy is as vital as a pencil, but unlike a pencil, it cannot be replaced by technology. In a sense, like a fresh box of crayons, it can come in many colors. Better than the latest gadget, it’s possible to equip every student with it, and even better, when we do, it can transform our world.

What’s the Big Deal About Empathy?

Empathy begins with putting yourself in someone else’s shoes — a key step in understanding perspectives that differ from your own. This isn’t just a good thing to do; it’s an important, active skill. It’s foundational to embracing differences, building relationships, achieving a global perspective, conducting richer and deeper analysis, and communicating more effectively. This skill is about as “21st century” as it gets. And like a muscle, empathy strengthens with practice and can be enhanced by any grade school child. This is the muscle that lets you to stand up for something, not just stand by.

Also like a muscle, empathy is easy to forget, particularly when under a crisis mode, always putting out fires. As we think about empathy in a well-functioning classroom, the physical state can be a metaphor for the health of the social-emotional learning setting: A classroom might look fine on the surface, doing OK on standardized tests, memorizing facts and figures, but its internal environment might remain weak. Weakness in this case is presented where children lack the more subtle tools that build 21st century learning and global competency. Absent empathy, sincere kindness and unity, how useful are passing test scores for changing communities and an ailing world?

It goes beyond that. An empathic environment is a smarter environment. According to Vicki Zakrzewski, education director at the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley, “Scientific research is starting to show that there is a very strong relationship between social-emotional learning and cognitive development and performance.” She adds, “Children as young as 18 months exhibit compassion, empathy, altruism, so these characteristics are part of who we are. But, at the same time, these skills have to be cultivated, because the environment can inhibit their development.” In other words, empathy, like a physical muscle, is present — but to manifest itself, it must be practiced.

A Fitness Plan for Building an Empathy Muscle

Back-to-school provides an ideal time to set that your school or classroom prioritizes the active development of empathy — that you’ll take a stand for it.

A terrific starting point is offered by Ashoka, a nonprofit organization devoted to motivating social innovation around the world. Their Start Empathy initiative shares research, case studies and inspirational stories, and is building a network of Changemaker Schools committed to building empathic, stimulating environments at the elementary level. They’ve createdd a road map for navigating a course to empathy — suitable for any age. You might also consider it a three-step fitness plan to build the empathy muscle.

Step 1. Prepare

Build the conditions in which empathy can thrive.

Create a Safe Space: A trust-based environment is core to unlocking empathy.

Lead by Example: Consider what empathy looks like in your interactions, and model this.

Develop Emotional Competency: Understand and manage your own emotions in order to determine and interpret these emotions in others.

Step 2. Engage

Take action that is appropriate to your personality and interests. There is no fixed course of engagement, but here are a few key activities.

Group Play: Empathy begins on the playground, where imagination is permitted to run free, where kids learn to solve their own issues and enforce their own rules.

Storytelling: Stories challenge our preconceptions, enabling us to wear the shoes of those whose experiences are different from our own.

Immersion: By immersing ourselves in others’ experiences, we learn to look beyond labels and stereotypes, and shift from projection to deep understanding.

Problem Solving: The act of collaboration creates empathy through shared challenges and victories.

Step 3. Reflect & Act

Action and reflection complete the circle, and form a vital distinction between “teaching to the test” versus internalizing knowledge and making a difference with that learning.

Identify Shared Values and Differences: As the Start Empathy road map explains, “Empathy means recognizing the shared humanity in others but also naming and appreciating differences. This is how we move from projection, where we imagine what we would do in someone else’s shoes, to empathy, where we understand and respect the decisions of another.

Instill Courage: Go beyond praising the right behaviors — proactively counteract the forces that stand in their way. This is where standing up, not just standing by, comes in.

Enable Action: Finally, give opportunities through which kids can put empathy into action and exercise pro-social behavior intended to benefit others.