Friday, October 4, 2013

Reflections on "Empathy: The Most Important Back-to-School Supply"

This article talks about the importance of developing empathy - both in ourselves and in our students.  I have always recognized how developing a safe environment that encourages risk-taking is critical to students' success in learning.  However, what I didn't know is that there is scientific research that identifies a "very strong relationship between social-emotional learning and cognitive development and performance."  This makes complete sense to me, although I never really thought about it that way before.

I think this article struck me tonight because today in class, my students participated in their first Lit Circle discussions of the year.  At the end of the 20-30 minute discussion, each group filled out a self-evaluation form in which they rated the group members on items like using their book in the discussion, listening to others, asking/responding to questions, etc.  Prior to the group self-evaluations, we discussed the purpose of this reflection:  it is a concrete way to give specific feedback to each group member about what they did well and what they could do differently the next time.  It was absolutely fascinating to watch how carefully and gently my students gave feedback to each other.  Although I had modeled both appropriate and inappropriate comments, and we discussed being open to the possibility that sometimes we see ourselves differently than others see us, I was incredibly impressed at the empathy my students showed as they completed this part of the activity.  Even the special education teacher who co-teaches one of the classes with me commented on how she loved watching them reflect in this manner.  I believe this is one example of pro-social behavior that was referenced in the article.

Moving forward, here are some questions I'm thinking about....  How do I help my students take this sensitivity and thoughtfulness beyond the walls of my classroom?  Can I help them transfer these skills to the hallways, lunchroom, locker room, bus, etc?  They were so impressive today, so I know they can do it.  What can I do to facilitate this in other areas of their school experience?


  1. Modeling is such a great way for students of all ages to learn. Your demonstration of what was appropriate and not really stuck with them. I really like the questions you are asking at the end of your blog. I would love to have a follow-up post sometime this year about anything you may have learned about this.

  2. I love this topic. Ultimately if a kid does not feel a part of a community their buy in and willingness to learn is compromised. This really does set the stage for learning.

  3. Marnie,

    Great post!! I work on empathy a lot in my own classroom. I am doing an incredible read aloud with my students this year called Wonder. If you haven't heard of it, go check it out on This is the cornerstone of my empathy discussions so far this year and it allows us to distinguish between sympathy for others and empathy for others. The main character Auggie has multiple facial deformities, the book is broken into parts where everyone in Auggie's life gives their perspective on what it like to be related to or friends with him. The discussions from this are incredible because the kids get a chance to see and start feeling empathy for this amazing character and the people in his life.

    I think continuing to discuss this, continuing to make a priority, will allow it to travel further throughout your building. Continue this great work and keep me posted!


    Penny Wyman

  4. I completely agree with this! I know for a fact that my students do better in school and otherwise because they know they can depend on me as their teacher as well as depend on their classmates for support. I think that in order to push that kind of empathy beyond the classroom is to incorporate current events that require students to discuss how they feel about it and ways that they wish or might actually be able to help. The lesson itself of showing students that things are "rough all over" (to quote The Outsides which we just finished) might help them to be empathetic towards others within the classroom, the school, and the community. If you don't know where to start, take something like the government shutdown and how that is affecting 800,000 employees around the country.