Empathy–and How Do We Teach It?

Boy, that’s a question and a half.  I tend to work on helping kids take other perspectives through literature. I have some favorite books I use with all grade levels and some that are reserved for certain grade levels in my mind.  Right now I’m using several with my third grade lit group–and I’m amazed at some of the discussions we’re having.

I set up the group by doing book talks on the books I had chosen and we had ordered for this group, and then, eventually, our book room–Wonder by R. J. Palaccio, The Thing About Georgie by Lisa Graff , and Out Of My Mind by Sharon Draper.  Then the kids blogged about which book they wanted to read and why.  (Click on this link and then go to the last page of the list to see those posts.) Most kids began wanting to read  Out of My Mind, but many moved to Wonder when those were the first books to arrive. We began with about half of the kids reading Out of My Mind and half reading Wonder, with only one reading  The Thing About Georgie.

It’s taken weeks for this group of third graders to get far enough in the books to begin looking for similarities between these three kids and so we’re now having those conversations. Here’s what happened last week.

I asked how or if they had changed their attitudes towards people who had challenges since they’d been reading their book. Some of the answers were just what I had hoped some of them would realize:

“Well, before I read Wonder, I think I would have been scared if someone who looked like Auggie had come to my school.  Now, I think I might be scared a little bit, but I would still try to talk to them.”

“I think just smiling at people is important. Melody tried to smile, but people didn’t know it.”

“Sometimes we think we might know what’s in other people’s heads but I think we don’t know.”

So as we talked, I pushed a bit more…I asked, “Suppose I told you that a blind student would be in your class beginning Monday?  What would you think, or feel, or do, or want to know?”

Their first responses were about whether the blind person would have a special helper (teaching assistant) and how they got blind–had they been blind all their lives, or had it been caused by an accident or illness?   Once they got past that, though, I reminded them their lives WOULD be impacted, as we would need to be sensitive to the additional needs–and every time they got up, they would need to be careful to push in chairs, not leave pencils or papers on the floor, put away pillows or beanbags, etc.

Kids are usually so willing to be thoughtful of others and helpful, if we give them the reasons why something is needed. It’s just that so often, we get caught up in all the minutiae that we forget to give kids the big picture…and some of them need it just as much as some of us do. I deliberately set up this book study with the kids somewhat in the dark.  I did the book talks so that they wouldn’t pick up immediately that each main character was facing issues in their lives because of something way beyond their control–a birth defect, genetics, whatever….but they figured the connections out pretty quickly.

What I wanted out of them reading these books was to be more sensitive to the feelings of others–to not be someone who merely tolerates differences, but who recognizes them and moves beyond them to looking for and finding the good in people.  Is that teaching empathy or something more?   Is it a reasonable goal?  And, if it is, why isn’t it in the curriculum?

Empathy is being able to step into someone else’s shoes to imagine how they are feeling.  So much of the hatred and hate crimes that happen, so much of the bullying and ostracizing of people or groups that happens is done without really feeling for the other who is being hurt. It is often done by someone who is hurt…who feels bullied by someone, who feels ostracized. If we teach empathy…if we talk with our students through books and life experiences about feeling for other people, will we make a difference in how people treat one another years from now?  I believe we will–and  the ability to make a difference begins as we teach and reach children each and every day in our schools and our lives.




One thought on “Empathy–and How Do We Teach It?

  1. Thanks for these ideas. I really have noticed a lack of empathy in many of my students this year. It is quite troubling and I want to take action!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *