Teaching Empathy

If you’re a teacher you’re probably noticing that there’s something strange going on with your students and their empathy skills. It’s not all of them. . But quite a few of our students seem like they just haven’t flexed their empathy muscles in a long while.

This might look like kids who don’t quite respond the way we would expect them to when they see someone hurt. I’ve heard several stories of teachers breaking down in class and kids not even stopping to give it any attention. That’s a little off….

It may look like students who can’t relate to personal stories we share in class to teach a moral. Or kids who don’t understand why they would want to wish a teacher happy birthday. Students speaking back to teachers and administrators. Or students who just don’t show appreciation or respect the way we are used to. I mean, if we’ve been teaching more than 3 years, we remember what things looked like before the pandemic, no? And this just isn’t it….

It’s a fact that disciplinary events have skyrockets (more than doubled) nationwide this year. Kids are being sent out of the classroom, given detention or even suspended at rates far higher than before March 2020.

Many of us have chalked it up to distance learning and lost social skills. And I believe that’s part of it. A big part of it. But there’s more…. When kids were home with no sports teams or clubs to belong to, what did many of them do to fill their time? Many turned to social media. Students who used to spend 2 hours a day on social media were now spending 8 – 12 hours a day on social media. And what was on social media? The news events that unfolded over the last 2 years. Our kids were overexposed to news that just wasn’t age appropriate for them.

Anyway, whatever the reason, the empathy muscle needs some flexing. So below are three strategies I’ve seen implemented in schools this year. Maybe there’s a nugget of an idea here for others to build upon.

Teacher Appreciation Weekly

One school I work with has been practicing Teacher Appreciation every week. Every Thursday, students use their homeroom period to write a note of appreciation to at least one staff member at the school. These notes are collected and placed in the staff mailboxes to spread a smile across the community.

Kindness is Modeled by Teachers and Administrators to help students rebuild their empathy skills.

Random Acts of Kindness Fridays

At another school, every Friday, students are given a list of “random acts of kindness” to consider trying. These include helping to sweep a classroom, wiping down desks, moving boxes, helping a student who is struggling with work, helping someone carry their bag, etc. Students spend about 10 minutes going over the list with their teacher and discussing what it might look like to implement this list for the remainder of the day. The teacher starts the effort by modeling what it looks like to help a student who might need assistance with a broken book-bag, or torn folder. Then the students are asked to look for opportunities to perform acts of kindness as the day progresses. At the end of the day the kids do a quick-write in their journals about which act of kindness they performed, and how it felt.

Relentless Love

Another school has implemented what they call a “relentless love” campaign. Their leader thought that students really needed to feel that their teachers cared for them. This leader felt that when we came back to school in September and hit the ground running to make up for learning losses after the pandemic, we failed to take the time to build relationships and trust in the classroom. This wasn’t anyone’s fault, but hindsight made her realize this step should have been taken, especially this year.

So she instructed teachers to slow down. She shared that learning losses wouldn’t be repaired without fixing this relationship piece. She explained “our kids are screaming for interaction and support. They need to know you care”.

Teachers threw a huge pot luck for the kids, bringing in all sorts of different food items. They played music and games to bond with the kids. They started planning more field trips so that they could spend time talking with and getting to know their students. They offered their rooms up for “lunch bunch”, letting small groups of kids come and eat in their classrooms, sitting in a circle, talking with the teacher.

Every one of the schools has seen a huge improvement in student – adult relationships, as well as decreases in disciplinary reports. The teachers say these actions are slowly working and they are hopeful they can reverse the effects of the last two years. I think we may all wish for that.

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