Creating Empathy in the Classroom
Originally published May 2010
By Martha Beach
Dr. Karyn Gordon is an expert on youth, a family consultant, an author and much more. In her upcoming speaking tour, she will present to eight schools in the Toronto District School Board on the topic of 10 Practical Strategies to Develop Empathy and Gratitude in Children. “There’s three parts to empathy: the head, the heart and the hand,” Gordon says. The hand is the intellectual part of understanding what empathy is and what it does, the heart feels what others are feeling and the hand actually takes action after feeling empathy for someone.
Gordon has done a lot of training with different teachers and school boards. TEACH Magazine recently chatted with Gordon on her top five tips for creating empathy in the classroom.
Gordon’s first tip is called Fill Their Emotional Bucket. “When children get the sense that their parent, teacher or coach have more empathy for them, that’s the best form of teaching,” Gordon says. When a child is upset, angry or frustrated, try to understand why and how they feel the way they do instead being angry, upset or defensive. If a child feels understood by the adults around them, they feel more loved and more secure and ultimately they learn to share their feelings in a calm manner.
Gordon’s second tip is called Seek to Understand. Empathy is about trying to see something from another person’s perspective and trying to feel what they feel. “When I’m coaching, I will try to jump in and see things from their perspective,” Gordon says. “ ‘Can you help me understand how you see this?’ It’s a very comprehensive line. I love that line. That line has been extremely helpful.”
Although Gordon’s third tip, Ask Don’t Tell, is very important to keep in mind when trying to understand a child’s feelings. Gordon stresses that we never know for sure what the other person feels. “It’s really important that we ask how they feel and don’t tell them how they feel,” she says. “It’s really irritating for children when they’re told how they feel.” Avoiding statements like ‘I know how you feel’ and replacing them with ‘I imagine that you feel this way, am I right?’ can make a world of difference.
A good exercise in understanding empathy is Gordon’s fourth tip, Switch Roles. “It’s a great teaching method,” Gordon says. Teachers divide their class into two groups and create a conflict situation that must be resolved. Each group plays a different role, and after 10 or 15 minutes of discussion, the groups must switch roles and put themselves in the opposite group’s shoes.
Gordon’s fifth tip is about gratitude, ‘Make Thank You’ Part of Your Culture.’ Every country has a culture and every classroom has a culture, a common attitude and an understood way of doing things. Gordon points out that it’s very important to recognize and help a positive culture in the classroom. “Gratitude is very connected to empathy,” says Gordon. “Really make sure your class room is a thank-you class room.” From a simple thank you for holding the door, to a bigger thank you for sharing a secret, those two small words create a culture of gratitude in a classroom. Gordon says that when she teaches this model to educators, many of them feel that they don’t need to do this, but it’s a very easy way to create a positive culture of gratitude and empathy within the classroom.
Ultimately, creating empathy comes down to leading children by example. “We have to model what we want them to do,” Gordon says. The schools selected for Dr. Karyn Gordon’s upcoming speaking tour are being asked to fundraise. The money raised by students will be donated to World Vision, that will use the money to build a school in Haiti. The students will be told about the head, heart and hand aspects of empathy. “A lot of people have the head and the heart part, but they don’t know what to actually do [to help people],” says Gordon. “What I’m hoping is that they will be moved, they will actually take action and advance the project.”
Martha Beach is a graduate of Ryerson University’s journalism program. Currently, she is a freelance writer and factchecker in Toronto.