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Ways to Teach Empathy Skills

Everyone has met people who are highly compassionate. But we would meet more of them if children were taught to be empathetic at a young age, according to author/teacher David A. Levine, who has created lessons and activities to teach empathy skills. Included: Activities to help children learn to think empathetically.

While many people think of empathy as an attribute or a character trait, teacher and author David A. Levine is convinced empathy can and should be taught in schools.

Levine, the author of , includes a mini-curriculum, lessons, activities, and a CD of songs in his book to help develop empathy skills in children and create classroom atmospheres where students feel safe and willing to be empathetic.

David A. Levine

Called "courageous conversations," Levine asked students to brainstorm solutions to tough social situations like a boy being left out of a game at recess, or what to do if everyone seems to be picking on one kid.

Levine talked with Education World about the importance of students using empathy skills in the classroom and in everyday situations.

Education World: What would you say to people who question whether empathy skills can be taught?

David A. Levine: My initial response is that we can't afford not to teach empathy and its companion behaviors. I define empathy as a way of thinking and being that is intentionally caring and compassionate. In practice, empathy is a combination of social skills that include high-levels of listening, perspective-taking, decision-making, and helping others. Each of these skills can be taught through teacher modeling, the articulation of clear and concise classroom expectations, relevant social skills-learning sessions, and the recognition that empathy is a critical component of a classroom culture that is caring and emotionally safe.

EW: Why do you think students today, and maybe teachers, need more training in how to be empathetic?

Levine: Many young people have told me that they often want to help another [child], but are unsure of how to do so without becoming that person's "best" friend. My response is that the simplest gesture of kindness and caring -- a smile, a greeting, an offering of supportive words to someone having a difficult time -- means so much to the person who is the recipient of such an empathic action. It's really quite empowering to learn how to help others. It is a natural inclination most of us have, to reach out to someone in need, yet the art form of helping others is rarely taught as a social and relationship skill.

As far as teachers are concerned, their number one role must be to establish caring and empathic mentoring relationships with their students, making the classroom an emotionally safe harbor where learning, achievement, success, and security are the norm. Empathy as demonstrated and modeled by the teacher is the key for creating these conditions.

EW: What are some ways teachers can integrate empathy skills into classroom lessons?

Levine: A first step toward integrating empathy into one's classroom lessons is to strategize ways to weave empathy into the way a teacher runs his or her classroom and the relationships that are nurtured and encouraged. Once empathic relationships have been established and felt in the classroom setting and the students feel safe and secure in the environment that has been created there, the integration of empathy into one's curriculum will be natural, logical, and authentic.

Any form of writing whether prose, poetry, or journaling that focuses on perspective taking and imagining other people's positions, is an effective approach for empathy integration. History has many natural empathic connections as well. I often teach about passion and courage, highlighting that these emotions frequently lead to standing up for what one feels is the right thing to do -- to follow one's heart, even if it means going against what most others are doing.

Empathy has been an attribute of many unique and great world leaders throughout history. These people sought to understand the policies and positions of their adversaries by not reacting with anger and hatred, but by responding with empathic listening, non-judgment, and diplomacy as a first step toward clarity and understanding. The legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is often explored as part of this dialogue, looking at how he helped fight for the rights of all people through non-violence, honor, and understanding. His courageous, heart-felt actions helped change the lives of many in spite of the strong resistance the civil rights movement encountered from its earliest years onward.

"It's really quite empowering to learn how to help others. It is a natural inclination most of us have, to reach out to someone in need, yet the art form of helping others is rarely taught as a social and relationship skill," says David A. Levine, author of Teaching Empathy: A Blueprint for Caring, Compassion, and Community.

One other thought-provoking approach to teaching empathy is through the moral dilemma discussion in which a social situation is posed to the class and all the various angles of perspective and decision-making are explored. I have run moral dilemma discussions about not being invited to a party, whether or not to give one's friend the answers to a homework assignment, finding money and deciding whether to keep it or not, or telling a friend to leave an innocent student alone who is a frequent target of harassment at lunch every day.

EW: How does encouraging and re-enforcing empathetic behavior enhance students' learning?

Levine: The relationships that evolve in a classroom where empathic behaviors are practiced will make the learning environment more meaningful and emotionally safe. By emotionally safe I mean a place where all students feel like they belong, where their unique voice is heard and listened to, and where they have a say in how they learn, and how the class functions. When these conditions for emotional safety are met (all of which are created through empathic and caring acts), students will be focused on learning, creativity, and expression, rather than on fear, peer acceptance and what they need to do to do to be "cool."

EW: Can you give an example of a "social discovery lesson?"

One of teacher/author David A. Levine's activities for helping students develop empathy is called the Event Empathy Action (EEA) (Copyright David A. Levine). The EEA is a three-step advanced listening approach that teaches students how to respond to others empathically. When something unfortunate, disappointing, or sad (a family separation, doing poorly on a test, being embarrassed in front of others) happens in another person's life, suggest students ask themselves these open-ended question about the person and event:

* What happened? (identify the event)

* How is that person feeling? (an understanding the other person's feelings leads to empathy)

* What will I do? (decide on a specific action to respond to the event)

The EEA method is presented to the group using empathic situations, which are hypothetical scenarios a class can discuss in order to explore various empathic responses.

The hope is that in time children will naturally respond to others with empathy after thinking through these three questions.

Levine: A social discovery lesson is relevant and invitational. It uses the process of dialogue, which uses open-ended questioning (who, what, where, when, and how), summary and clarifying statements, and reflections or feedback of individual and group feelings. It is a lesson that is not judgmental or critical, but rather caring, focused, and alive, with the energy of curiosity, anticipation, reflection, and life-long application. I'm really seeking to facilitate an "aaa haaa" moment of discovery for the students; one that is not only meaningful but also memorable.

A social discovery session is on the cutting edge of the social experiences that students face every day and I use music as a primary tool for engaging students in an energetic dialogue about the "real life" material portrayed through the lyrics of each song I choose. Whether the teacher uses music or some other artistic form, it is important to find a novel, inviting, and meaningful approach to act as a catalyst for open dialogue and discovery.

The most effective way to take the conditions and feelings of such a reflective learning experience and move them forward into practice is through role-play, processing what has been learned, and effective closure techniques for ending the lesson in a contemplative and lasting way. One effective and efficient closure technique is to have students complete an unfinished statement such as, "One thing I learned is" "Something that surprised me is " "One thing I will always remember is"

EW: What would you say are the hardest aspects of being empathetic for children to master?

Levine: It's one thing to be able to answer questions about "right or wrong" during a lesson. It's quite another to practice the ideals of unity and caring through pro-social choices in what Dr. Arnold Goldstein called the "anxiety of the moment." These "moments" often take place during unstructured times of the day: the cafeteria, recess, in the halls, and on the bus. It is during these times when the social pressure for acceptance is most profound when it takes the most courage and passion to act on one's empathic musings. The goal of my work is to co-create such a meaningful and memorable learning dialogue between the students and teacher, that the bundle of empathy skills which are taught, (listening, perspective taking, decision making, and reaching out to others), are used in real life outside of the classroom in stressful and emotionally challenging times.

This e-interview with David A. Levine is part of the Education World Wire Side Chat series. Click here to see other articles in the series.


Article by Ellen R. Delisio
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