Why learning empathy matters to kids

Empathy is a key part of our social fabric. Numerous studies have tied empathetic behavior to success in the classroom and in life. Here are some ways area schools are focusing on empathy in their classrooms and school communities.

Encompassing both kinds of empathy

Lila Jokanovic, executive director at Council Oak Montessori School in Blue Island, explains that there is emotional empathy and cognitive empathy, and the school emphasizes the need for both.

“We place equal emphasis on being kind, which is emotional empathy, and being able to walk in the shoes of another and taking the perspective of another, which is cognitive empathy. This allows our students to develop into adults who are more likely to show compassion and lead as adults motivated to help others,” she says.

Empathy is not automatic, but can be learned

Schools recognize that empathy is a skill that can be learned but first students need to learn what it is and what it looks like.

“Although empathy and compassion come naturally, empathy is not unlike other skills that need to be introduced, nurtured and practiced,” says Tina Centineo, SEL coach and teacher at Science & Arts Academy in Des Plaines. Students at Science & Arts Academy are first introduced to the concept of empathy through the school’s Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) program.

“After learning the basics of how to show empathy and why it is important, teachers consistently work to help students apply what they have learned throughout the day,” Centineo says. There are many opportunities to put empathy into practice, ranging from sitting on the Buddy Bench to working on group projects to the peer conflict resolution process.

Lisa Herold, educational specialist at St. Clement School in Chicago, agrees.

“We see empathy as a life skill, and we teach it, instead of just expecting that kids should have it,” she says. She also notes that it is not something that can be taught once. It’s an ongoing effort, in school and beyond. “Social skills once thought to be mastered in kindergarten take a lifetime to acquire,” she says.

“New students are young and egocentric because of human development,” says Shanna Bayer, leader teacher at Sauganash Montessori School in Chicago. She says learning about empathy starts with acknowledging and giving students names for feelings and that using simple words help students with big emotions. Empathy starts to develop when students can relate those feelings to their own experience, she says.

Meeting other students where they are – literally

Some schools use student meetings as a time to work on empathy, especially the communication and listening skills required to be truly empathetic.

At Near North Montessori School in Chicago, there are a few ways that happens.

Reena Vohra Morgan, primary director, says that for younger students it can be spending time on the peace rug where they are encouraged to use “I feel” statements and learn tools for resolving conflict. Junior high students have weekly council meetings that begin with compliments and acknowledgements. Students then discuss facts and come up with constructive ideas to improve daily life at school.

“It’s amazing to see. They take turns facilitating and moderating and sharing the space,” Vohra Morgan says. 

At St. Clement School, students begin each day in a circle of Morning Meeting or Class Meeting, which offers a chance to greet and share with each other. In addition to it being an opportunity to practice social-emotional skills, that positive start and connection can help students learn better throughout the day. “It is difficult for a child to concentrate on math if he feels disconnected from his peers,” Herold says.

Deepening education by identifying with the curriculum

Educators find the empathy leads to a deeper level of learning and understanding of the curriculum.

Tamar Cytryn, director of Jewish Studies and Campus Life at Chicago Jewish Day School, explains that “often when students are learning some of the sacred texts and texts from general studies classes, we challenge them to view them through an empathetic lens and ask ‘How do you think they felt?’ and ‘What was it like?’”

They explore the answers through activities like role playing and writing diaries.

Recently, students learning ancient civilizations studied the importance of access to water. When they read about a modern African community lacking access water and the impact of putting in a well, “students were so moved they did a water walkathon while carrying water themselves to know what it was truly like and raised money to build another well in that African village.”

Cytryn says that empathy is fundamental to learning and putting that education into action.

“Our students cannot begin to fix the world if they do not have empathy for what other people are experiencing,” she says.


This article originally published in Chicago Parent’s Making the Grade 2020 print edition. Read the rest of the issue here.

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