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5 Ways to Teach Empathy and Create 'Schools of Belonging'

Providing students with the ability to understand each other’s experiences can reduce behavior problems, improve attendance, create excitement for school and learning, reduce bullying, and boost academic success

As young people grapple with higher levels of social isolation and anxiety related to the COVID-19 pandemic, parents and teachers are concerned about students’ emotional wellbeing.

According to a recent Education Week survey, 44% of students reported that their level of social anxiety had increased since the pandemic and 43% percent reported a higher level of loneliness. Fewer than half of the students who participated in the survey reported that their school provided them with enough help to do a better job with making responsible decisions, handling challenging situations well, or learning to recognize and manage emotions. Less than a third said that their school provided sufficient support to help them handle conflict and understand others’ perspectives. 

Recognizing the impact that students’ emotional health can have on their classroom experience and their ability to learn, many teachers are hoping to help their students feel more connected and find a greater sense of wellbeing. With a growing emphasis on social-emotional learning, more educators are focusing on how to teach empathy in order to create more supportive, inclusive and safe classrooms.

“There are many studies that show how critical it is to build positive relationships in a community and in the classroom,” says Patricia Crain de Galarce, Director of the Center for Inclusive and Special Education at Lesley’s Graduate School of Education. “Students who learn social and emotional skills including empathy have fewer behavior problems, better attendance, more excitement to come to school, more excitement to learn, more ability to take risks, and better test scores, if that’s your indicator.”

Using everything from music and community-building tools, there are a variety of resources and techniques educators can utilize.

1. Teach empathy as an intention.

Empathy is defined as the ability to understand or feel what another person is experiencing, thinking, or feeling. Educator David Levine ’84 describes it differently.

“Empathy is an intention,” he says. “People always think it’s walking a mile in someone else’s shoes. That's the common definition. For me, it’s an intention of being present with someone, stopping everything and absorbing where they are. And that leads to the skill of compassion, which is about listening.”

Levine is the Director of the Teaching Empathy Institute in New York’s Hudson Valley. For over 35 years, he has been working with educators and students in schools across the country to create what he calls “schools of belonging,” using music and the community-building tools he first learned during his Lesley internships and his own years as a teacher.

Lesley alumnus David Levine '84 talking with students
David Levine '84, Director of the Teaching Empathy Institute in Hudson Valley, New York, talks with students

He recalls one of his earliest teaching experiences in Woodstock, New York, with a new classroom composed of kids who other teachers considered “difficult.”

“I had this group of fourth graders sitting in rows and they weren’t engaged, couldn't focus on the lesson. So I used what I had learned through my student teaching—I put them in a circle and I asked them ‘how do you feel about this new class?’ No one said anything. So I said, ‘Well, what’s something you like about school?’ The only thing they could think of was the pizza. I had my guitar with me and we wrote a song to the tune of ‘Good Lovin’ by the Animals, only it was ‘Good Pizza.’ Before I knew it, I had built community.”

“Every one of us has a story we’re living, a life story. We don’t know what page came yesterday, and you never know what’s coming tomorrow. But today, we can write a page together.”
David Levine ’84, Director of the Teaching Empathy Institute

2. Use empathy to combat bias.

Helping young children form strong emotional ties at school helps them understand that they are connected to other people, even when they’re faced with differences, according to pre-kindergarten teacher Dana Frantz Bentley, who is an Assistant Professor of Early Childhood Education at Lesley.

Kids enter school, Dr. Bentley explains, asking questions about how the world works and what their place in it might be.

“The answer is that we are all deeply connected through being human. We all have families; our families are all different. We all love to play, we like to play different things. The empathy piece, this sense of connectedness, is something that you start building at the very beginning of a school year with small things. And once you build that community, it makes space for difference.”

Bentley believes that making space for kids to engage in discussion with people who have different backgrounds or beliefs helps them engage with questions around differences and diversity later in life.

“When you’re five, it’s ‘you love spaghetti, and I hate spaghetti—how can you be my friend?’ And it really evolves, even on a pre-K level, into ‘wait—I believe in God and you say there’s no God.’ These are the things that happen at the lunch table.”

The structure of that conversation can apply to a wide range of topics, she observes.

“Sometimes we’re having conversations about gender and pronouns and sometimes it’s about whether it’s really okay to put water in the sand table.”

3. How music and literature can help you teach empathy.

How can classroom educators teach empathy?

“It can be as simple as picking the right piece of literature to read aloud to students and talking about the characters and what they might have been thinking or feeling at that moment,” says Patricia Crain de Galarce. “‘If you were the mouse in the story, how would you have felt?’ You’re just asking kids to step outside of their own experience and take in a perspective other than their own.”

During his years of consulting and working with educators, the most powerful tool David Levine found was a song called “Howard Gray,” written by musician Lee Domann. The lyrics describe Domann’s memories of a childhood classmate who was being bullied, and his own lifelong remorse at having joined in. Levine found that performing the song with a classroom of children opened up conversations like nothing else—about bullying and being bullied, about being an uneasy bystander or wanting to do better.

“The song was the magic. I would walk into a classroom and all I knew was that I was going to sing the song and let the kids drive the experience. One day I wanted to take a deeper dive and I said ‘Who’s ever felt this way? Who’s got a story to tell?’ And they all wanted to tell their story. It became a bias awareness session; it became a diversity session; it became empathy.”

4. Create a more democratic school environment.

For Dana Frantz Bentley, empathy is a crucial element in creating what she calls “a democratic classroom” where children feel empowered to engage with each other rather than rely on the teacher to set rules.

“You start with smaller things, like the sand table or who gets the double bikes on the playground,” she says. “And then over time, that practice holds the bigger issues like gender or race.”

“In the U.S., schooling tends to be very focused on having the right answer and moving on to the next thing. But that’s not where change happens. That’s not where innovation happens. Innovation happens in having a flexibility of thought, and a willingness to hear and be changed by what somebody else has said.”
Dana Frantz Bentley, Associate Professor of Early Childhood Education

Young children, she explains, depend upon routines to feel safe, and to feel strong and empowered in the classroom. Creating structures of critical conversation and listening is essential.

“The empathy piece is so important, because the kids can’t take risks if they don’t feel safe. We use the language ‘This is his idea, and this is your idea. He has a different idea than your idea. What do you guys think?’ But for kids to really bring that to the table to bring themselves and their ideas to the table, they have to feel safe, to be vulnerable. And that means there has to be empathy.”

5. Give students the skills to hear everyone’s story.

In a time when many people are feeling distanced, disconnected, and divided, helping students develop empathy and relationship-building skills may be more important than ever. And it leads to better learning.

“In the U.S., schooling tends to be very focused on having the right answer and moving on to the next thing. But that’s not where change happens. That’s not where innovation happens,” says Dr. Bentley. “Innovation happens in having a flexibility of thought, and a willingness to hear and be changed by what somebody else has said. And combine that with what you were thinking to make something more. We’re really working with children from the very beginning to say that the most powerful thing is to share your idea, to hear the ideas of other people, and then to come up with a new idea.”

Levine hopes to provide educators with the skills to put empathy into practice so that they and their students can see each other with a new level of understanding.

“Every one of us has a story we’re living, a life story,” he says. “We don’t know what page came yesterday, and you never know what’s coming tomorrow. But today, we can write a page together.”

Find more information and resources on teaching empathy

What Drives Learning: Young Peoples’ Perspectives on the Importance of Relationships, Belonging, and Agency, America's Promise Alliance

Student and Teacher Views of Social-Emotional Learning: Results of a National Survey, Education Week

Beyond Academic Learning: First Results from the Survey of Social and Emotional Skills, Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD)

Social And Emotional Learning (SEL) and Student Benefits, Institute of Education Sciences

Outcome Measurement of School-Based SEL Intervention Follow-Up Studies, Sage Journals

Teaching Empathy Institute