“Empathy is about finding echoes of another person in yourself.” – Mohsin Hamid
Have you ever been outside with your students and all of a sudden you see a rogue kickball come flying by? You automatically cringe and feel the pain of the child who was boinked on the head with the flying sphere. How about this scenario? Your stomach turns a flip as you watch children eating something disgusting on a Youtube video. Why do we feel the pain of others and experience gut reactions to their experiences? Researchers believe that neurons in the brain are the reason. Neuroscientists have identified these “mirror neurons” and believe that they are the key to why we feel empathy for the pain of others. Empathy expert and neuroscientist Vilayanur Ramachandran has theorized that mirror neurons may be the key to our self-awareness and our ability to feel empathy for others. Professor Ramachandran calls these the “neurons that shaped civilization.”
Since we are in the business of shaping the young minds that will shape civilization, maybe we should spend a little more time cultivating empathy in our classrooms. Empathy is hard to measure, so it doesn’t fit easily into a curriculum benchmark check-off box, but it is a skill that carries great impact in the lives of our students. Lack of empathy can be a barrier to building relationships and to learning. So, how can we build empathy in our classrooms? Here are a few ideas:
Take time to have class discussions about empathy. Talk about its importance when solving classroom issues or student conflicts. Raise awareness of what empathy is and how it helps us as problem solvers.
Set expectations. Define empathy and use it as part of the behavioral expectations of respect and responsibility as citizens in the classroom.
Find evidence of empathy in literature. Character analysis opens the door to discussions about empathy. Can you feel for the character? Why do you think he did what he did? Why do you connect with the character?
Model empathy. Teacher modeling is critical to the empathy equation. We set the tone in the classroom and should show students how we believe others should be treated.
Be intentional. How we act and react to students not only helps us to meet their individual needs, but builds the empathetic mindset for a more compassionate school community.
Empathy is a powerful life skill, not a mere “touchy feely” reaction. It takes strength and determination to create a balance of empathy and responsibility in the classroom and it should not be overlooked because of the countless demands that pour down throughout the school day. If our ultimate goal is to prepare students to be career and college ready, we must also instill the relational skills that enable them to work with others. Empathy is a complex concept, but our brains are equipped and ready to put it to work.
**Use your mirror neurons and see if this makes you smile.
The Neurons That Shaped Civilization: https://www.ted.com/talks/vs_ramachandran_the_neurons_that_shaped_civilization