Teaching (with) empathy and compassion in schools

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Photo: The Blue Dot

Emotions are the DNA of human experience. Social relationships play a pivotal role in helping us become fully human. Connectedness is an essential need for our species. So, we tend to assume it comes naturally and, thus, needs not to be taught in schools.

It is only recently that policymakers and organisations are paying attention and defining emotions and social skills as essential to a well-rounded education. This is mostly based on growing evidence that socio-emotional skills increase academic outcomes and well-being and employers seek those skills and will pay for them.

There is also enough scientific evidence suggesting that social and emotional skills (SES) can be taught in schools through a combination of approaches. This evidence finds that for better results, especially with at risk children and youth, SES need to be taught explicitly, through a well-designed curriculum with well-sequenced and focused activities. What and how much goes in it varies across programmes. Focusing on a few skills with proven impact may be more cost-effective and easier to implement and assess than teaching a broader set of skills. However, in our view, it is the combination of comprehensive socio-emotional learning that leads to increased well-being and better learning. To illustrate our point, let us take two skills that could be seen as the two sides of the “getting along – getting ahead” coin: grit and empathy.


(perseverance and passion for long term goals)

Grit may serve you well to graduate from high-school, get into a good college and make a good living. Yet, many have ‘grit’ and are successful workwise, however feel unhappy and lonely. So, while teaching stand-alone grit to children is effective on certain dimensions, also teaching them self-awareness, will help them recognise what actually makes them happy. It will also help them recognise their strengths and interests, so that they pursue the goal that is best for them and so they know when it is wise to quit or to take another road. Teaching them to understand other people’s feelings, needs and concerns will help them pursue their goals in a less self-absorbed way, relying on the synergy with others to grow together while interacting with kindness and respect. This will enable them to build and sustain positive relationships, which means they won’t be alone through a challenging journey and when they reach their goal, they will have someone important they can share their joy with. In collective societies, this is even more relevant.


(putting yourself in another’s place)

Empathy, on the other hand, may lead children to feel overwhelmed by others’ emotions if they don’t know how to manage their own; or guilty or powerless for not knowing what to do about it. Empathy and compassion are meaningful when children know, understand and trust themselves, as well as when they know who they are, what they have in common with others and what sets them apart. We need to teach children to be aware and in control of their impulses and emotions so that they are able to focus on how others feel without dismissing their own feelings or letting them get in the way. Only then will empathy and compassion build true connectedness. Teaching empathy requires also helping students understand and acknowledge the discrimination, condescension or oppression –open or hidden, macro or micro– that other people and groups experience day to day due to their gender, age, ethnicity, faith, socio-economic condition, sexual orientation, etc. This is a lens that sharpens empathy and needs to be trained time and again because it tends to wear off. Empathy is a first step towards teaching children to care for those in need. So a broader skill set will help them think critically about the conditions that perpetuate injustice; think creatively about what they can do, today or in the future, to change those conditions; make a realistic plan that informs their choices and inspires their personal journey, short and long-term; and pursue those goals with resolve and purpose.

Having said all that, we would like to offer two thoughts on how we think socio-emotional education and specifically education for empathy and compassion, must be put in practice.

1. Care and respect as the “air we breathe”

Research shows that in addition to explicit SES instruction, socio-emotional learning must also be integrated into regular subjects, teachers’ instructional practices, and school organisations, climate and norms. More and better learning experiences occur in positive school environments. Teachers and school leaders must align their practices, activities, interactions and disciplinary methods, so that care and respect are established as the “air we breathe” within the classroom and the school. But, how? Being aware and respectful of feelings, owning their mistakes and using them to learn, being kind to children and adults alike, actively listening to their students, showing appreciation, nurturing uniqueness, recognising their students’ strengths and building their learning experience from there. It takes practice, self-reflection and constant feedback: schools need to measure “air quality” permanently.

2. Teach the child, not the skill

Similar to “treat the patient, not the disease”, what this means is that children must be seen as individuals with minds of their own, entitled to opinions, emotions, concerns and preferences; and not as “adults in the making”, “work in progress”, projects of future workers, future citizens, or future parents. Then, what will matter is how they view and experience their own learning, enough so that it shapes and drives the education process to provide children with learning opportunities that fulfill their childhood needs. Experiences that spark their natural curiosity, inspire their efforts, grip their concentration, endow them with the joy of mastery, give them purpose, build their confidence, drive them to collaborate, connect them with others and with the world.Ultimately, the goal is for children to be happier, kinder, healthier. This is not to say that who they become in the future does not matter. A child treated kindly, will become a kind adult. It is the natural consequence, but when it becomes the goal, the focus is no longer the child, the person in front of you, but the skill and the future adult. It is about teaching children with empathy and it is the most powerful avenue for building their sense of worth, belonging and purpose.

This blog post was originally posted on UNESCO's Blue Dot blog.

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Ines Kudo

Senior Education Specialist

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