5 ways to teach empathy and build a strong school community

5 ways to teach empathy and build a strong school community

Empathy is the glue that holds all of humanity together. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines “empathy” as “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner”.

That might sound like a mouthful, but the notion of empathy ties in very well with another concept that South Africans are well acquainted with. Ubuntu is an African philosophy that speaks of a shared humanity, and in the spirit of Mandela Day on 18 July, here are five ways to teach empathy and build a strong school community.

1. Make empathy a priority

One report released by Harvard University explains the importance of teaching empathy to children, saying, “Parents who don’t prioritise their children caring for others can deprive them of the chance to develop fundamental relationship skills, and strong relationships are one of our most vital and durable sources of well-being”.

Indeed, encouraging empathy is one of the best ways to promote happiness in kids and foster a healthy school environment. Making empathy a priority in the classroom nurtures the ideals associated with teamwork – something that is paramount in any classroom and school.

2. Acknowledge children when they are kind to others

Affirming positive behaviours like kindness in children reinforces the ideals of empathy. When children show kindness to their peers, a simple acknowledgement like saying, “that was kind/ thoughtful of you”, goes a long way in encouraging learners to repeat this type of behaviour and make kindness a habit.

3. Model respect

Children base a lot of their own behaviour on what they see adults doing. Both in the home and the classroom, teachers and parents should take care with the kinds of behaviour they model for their kids. When the grown-ups don’t treat others with respect, they shouldn’t be surprised when kids are nasty to one another.

4. Apologise

Nobody’s perfect, and we all sometimes overstep our bounds in our interaction with others. Encouraging kids to apologise when they have been rude or nasty to friends nurtures the ideals of empathy, and also teaches children to take responsibility when their behaviour is inappropriate.

5. Empathy is an all-the-time exercise

Instead of being something that is focused on just some of the time, empathy should be a part of the overall class environment all the time. Educators and parents can embolden learners with empathy by having them acknowledge all of their feelings all the time. Happiness is an important emotion, but so is sadness and anger and jealousy and surprise – teaching kids to acknowledge the full range of feelings is key to encouraging empathy.

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