Unpacking empathy

Heather Mock

This article is cross-posted from the Compositive Primary blog

The last seven months have turned the world on its head. When I first heard that COVID-19 was going to be something big, I assumed that meant a large percentage of students might be out for a while or we would really have to crack down on hand-washing, making sure it was happening multiple times a day. I never thought that we would move to remote learning for an extended period of time and that, seven months later, things would still not be back to normal at my school or in the world.

But, interestingly, this pandemic has brought to light what many people have known for some time: how crucial it is for us to develop social and emotional skills in our kids. What some people have dubbed “soft skills” are in fact foundational building blocks for developing students who can face a constantly changing world. And one of the most important of these building blocks is empathy. At Compositive Primary, empathy is developed in a multitude of ways. We don’t have a pre-packaged curriculum for social and emotional learning because we believe it needs to be integrated into everything we do.

What is Empathy?
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines empathy as, “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner.” It makes sense that this is such a crucial component of our lives. We feel more alive when we feel more connected, and when we feel all alone, we feel hopeless. When others show empathy towards us, they are communicating to us that we are not alone. Research professor Brené Brown talks about this concept quite a bit in her work on vulnerability. Only when we feel empathy from someone are we willing and able to share our vulnerabilities.

Experts on empathy have broken the definition down further, pointing out three different types of empathy: cognitive, emotional (some call affective), and compassionate. Cognitive empathy, also called perspective-taking,involves simply knowing how someone feels. This is a great starting point. If we can begin to understand how someone might be feeling, we can read situations and interactions, and that may shift our own reactions and responses. Of course, just knowing how someone feels may not be enough. When a teacher chastises a student, saying something like, “Imagine how Joe feels when you knock down his blocks,” the student who did the knocking down may be thinking, I bet he feels bad, which is what I intended! While it’s certainly a first step for students to identify how someone else may be feeling, this cannot be the end goal in teaching empathy.

The second type of empathy is emotional (or affective) empathy. This type of empathy involves actually taking on the feelings of someone else – feeling sad when they are sad or happy when they are happy. It may even involve a more physical response – crying when seeing others in distress or cringing when seeing someone hurt themselves. And, in fact, the emotional response stems from something physical – the neurons in our brain actually fire when we act and also when we see others act, resulting in our ability to mimic actions we see in others – for this reason, they are called mirror neurons. So, for instance, when babies see someone smile, they learn to smile as well. Our brain systems are more sophisticated than simply allowing mimicry of physical actions, though. We actually do have a visceral response to others’ emotional highs and lows. Being able to truly feel what others feel can certainly be helpful in developing strong relationships and in helping people feel understood. But there are dangers as well – if teachers fully take on all of the emotions that their students experience on a given day, they will exhaust themselves and be of no help to those very students.

The third type of empathy, which in my mind takes the best aspects of the previous types described, is compassionate empathy. In this case, we know how someone feels, and we are moved to do something about it – to celebrate and validate them when they are feeling good, or to support them when they are feeling low. When we demonstrate compassionate empathy, we are able to forge strong connections with others while still holding on to who we are.

At Compositive Primary, teachers work daily to cultivate empathy in our students, not through extra programming but through everyday activities. In one of our early childhood classrooms, students read the book Anh’s Anger, by Gail Silver. The book tells the story of a boy named Anh who gets angry when he is told he has to stop playing (surely something our students relate to!). As the teacher read the story and asked questions, students experienced cognitive empathy – they knew how Anh felt, partly because they had likely felt that way before.

In the story, an anger monster shows up and hangs around Anh for a while. At first he is resistant, but he ultimately figures out that it’s okay to have the anger monster around now and then, and he discovers that once he has accepted that it’s okay, the monster usually leaves. During one of the multiple readings of the story (it became a class favorite), the teacher asked questions that helped students develop awareness of their own feelings. What does it actually feel like physically when you are frustrated? Do you feel hot? Does your heart beat? Students made their own emotion monsters and spent time with them, digging into how they felt. This exploration allowed students to truly feel what Anh felt – emotional empathy – as well as to develop an awareness of how their own feelings manifest physically.

As students played with their own emotion monsters, teachers guided them in recognizing that it’s perfectly okay to feel different emotions, even when they make us feel uncomfortable. And they also began to develop an understanding of regulating big emotions (playing with their emotion monsters rather than trying to hide them away). Finally, they pushed students to investigate how they might help their friends when they see that they are grappling with big emotions. And finally, they brought this idea outside of our community. In several discussions, students had determined that having a “stuffie” to hug when feeling down was an enormous benefit, and so they held a stuffie drive, collecting stuffed animals from members of the community and working with another class to deliver them to students at Children’s Hospital – compassionate empathy in action.

Children’s literature (and fiction in general) is a fantastic way to cultivate empathy, as you can see. Children may see a bit of themselves in the characters and actually put themselves in their shoes. This leads to greater understanding of their own emotions and also an increased capacity for empathy. The next time you read with your children, keep that idea in the back of your head and ask questions that will help develop empathy – How do you think Angelina feels when her classmates make fun of her name? Have you felt like that before? Tell me about it… There are all sorts of directions to go using rich children’s literature as a starting point. I’m excited to hear about your journeys!

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