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.
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.”