“There’s no pain on earth that doesn’t crave a benevolent witness.”
― Sue Monk Kidd, The Invention of Wings
You’ve heard it before, and it breaks your heart:
“Everyone is better than me!”
As educators, our usual response is, “Of course not! You’re smart!”
Unfortunately, empty reassurance doesn’t fix anything.
Here’s why. When a student confesses these feelings, they’re trusting you. They’re giving you a glimpse of deep pain. Rushing to reassure the student does nothing to heal that pain.
Instead, try empathy.
What Is Empathy and Why Is It So Powerful?
The desire to be seen and for our experiences to be understood is a universal drive. Empathy is the ability to sense other people’s emotions and imagine how that person is feeling or thinking.
Brené Brown has a wonderful TED Talk on empathy called The Power Of Vulnerability. This animated video features part of the audio from her TED Talk, and drives home what it means to be empathetic:
For students with learning differences, empathy is more powerful than any skill or strategy. These kids are often trying harder than their peers and are frequently less successful. They feel different. They crave connections. Empathy cuts through suffering. It allows us to connect, motivate, and craft more responsive instruction.
It can be tough to empathize, so sometimes we end up judging. We ask them to try harder, to pay better attention.
How Do I Use Empathy With My Students?
A child’s feelings often stem from whether or not her needs are being met. By connecting with what a child is feeling, we recognize her needs. Here’s what to do:
- Observe what the child seems to be feeling.
- Sincerly acknowledge the legitimacy of those feelings.
- You don’t have to do anything. Just be present.
It can be uncomfortable to be in the moment with another’s pain, especially a child’s pain. Especially when we want to fix the pain. And yet, acknowledging the child’s feelings and experience is often all she needs.
Imagine a fifth grader overwhelmed with his math homework. His peers tease him. He looks blue.
“You look really frustrated!” you say.
“I bet you feel angry and upset when the other kids make fun of you. That sounds really challenging. You’re trying your hardest, and it takes a long time to finish this work.”
Sometimes, all we need is for our pain to be acknowledged. We need a benevolent witness.
Consistently, when I share my observations with a child about how they might be feeling, there is a palpable sense of relief, like a giant exhale. Their eyes get big and their voices soften. Sometimes, too, the kids surprise me by identifying solutions and remedies for their troubles. Sometimes, they’re able to keep on plugging away.
Empathy works. When we treat kids compassionately, they trust us. They respect us. They’ll work hard for us. In turn, we can adapt our instruction to the student’s needs.
Five Ways to Increase Empathy In Your Teaching (And Your Life) Today
- Empathize with yourself.
How empathetic is your toughest critic? You.
Practice naming what you’re feeling without judging.
I know I’m a work in progress:
For years, I’ve made self-critical remarks to myself in yoga class, like: “Guh! Anne-Marie, you can’t even touch your own toes. You’re lousy at this!”
It took me a long time to even notice that this internal voice was so mean. Now I try to be more aware when this voice appears: “Wait a minute! I still can’t get my heels to touch the floor in down dog, but think about how much closer I am this month.”
It sounds hokey, but it makes it a lot more pleasant to be inside my own head.
Try to become aware when the voice inside your head isn’t treating you the way you deserve to be treated. Would you talk to someone else that way? Probably not.
Learn to identify others’ facial expressions and body language.
Can you identify others’ feelings from their facial expressions?
Find out how empathetic you are. Take the Greater Good Science Center’s Emotional Intelligence Quiz. In this eye-opening quiz, you’ll try to identify the emotion of real people in photos. Don’t worry if you miss the answer — each photograph will also show the exact muscles involved in that emotion.
Practice naming your students’ feelings.
Review this list of positive and negative feelings. When you’re checking in with your students, can you recognize these feelings?
Connect with the student and see if your observation matches their feelings. Students with limited vocabularies can benefit the most. Often, their repertoire of emotional vocabulary is limited to “happy,” “sad,” and “angry.” What a gift to learn that they’re feeling “pride” or “discouragement.”
Create an empathetic learning environment.
Learn how thousands of kids have learned about empathy from the classroom program Roots of Empathy.
Bring yourself into the present moment.
Mindfulness can help promote empathy (Mascaro, Rilling, Negi, & Raison, 2013).
You don’t need a full-blown meditation practice to incorporate mindfulness into your life. Start small with this five-second ritual. As you pour your morning cup of coffee, take the deepest abdominal breath you can and let it all the way out. You’ll feel calmer and more present.
Taking the Next Step…
If the idea of nurturing empathy in your life resonates for you, you might consider incorporating a deeper, more regular practice:
- Loving-Kindness Meditation. It appears that all kinds of mindfulness practices cultivate empathy. Loving-Kindness meditation, which focuses on warmly thinking about yourself and others, may be particularly helpful. By the way, meditation also can prevent teacher stress, depression, and burnout (Elder, Nidich, Moriarty, & Nidich). In my own life, I often turn to Loving-Kindness meditation during times of personal difficulty. When my husband’s grandmother was ill, Loving-Kindness meditation helped me manage feeling overwhelmed and heavy-hearted.
- Also, consider learning about Non-Violent Communication (NVC). The founder of NVC, Marshal Rosenburg, has initiated peace programs across the world in war-torn countries like Rwanda, Serbia, and Ireland. At the heart of Non-Violent Communication are the skills of empathetic listening and honest communication. These are awesome skills to practice with family members and romantic partners too! For more information, check out Marshal Rosenburg’s book Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life.
In my office, the students who are the most engaged in learning, are the ones who feel safe and connected. Most of the time, I find that this feeling of connection and trust arises from cultivating a deeper relationship with students – a relationship based on emotional honesty and understanding.
Instructing from a place of empathy is a powerful instrument in any teacher’s toolbox. If you have an educator in your life who might benefit from this teaching strategy, please help spread the word by sharing this post with a friend, colleague, or loved one using the share buttons below. Thank you!
How do you practice empathy in your life or with your students?
Elder, C., Nidich, S., Moriarty, F., & Nidich, R. (2014). Effect of transcendental meditation on employee stress, depression, and burnout: A randomized controlled study. The Permanente Journal, 18 (1), 19-23.
Mascaro, J. S., Rilling, J. K., Negi, L., & Raison, C. L. (2013). Compassion meditation enhances empathic accuracy and related neural activity. Social Cognitive And Affective Neuroscience, 8(1), 48-55.