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3 Ways To Develop Empathy in Students

Some people are just naturally more empathetic than others.

There’s the kid who leaves the apple on your desk, and the kid who leaves a tac on your seat.

And that’s just how it is.

Or at least that’s what we thought. It’s only more recently we’re beginning to see that empathy is just another skill, like reading and writing, that can be taught and learnt.

As described in a recent TES article by Miranda McKearney, founder of Empathy Lab, “All of us can improve our empathy skills because our brains are plastic. We’re not just born with a fixed quantity of empathy. And psychologists advise us that it’s best to do that young, in school-aged pupils.”

The first thing you may think here is great, yet another thing to teach.

But developing empathy in students is not about putting on extra activities or holding dedicated empathy workshops. To teach it well, empathy can and should be integrated into your style of teaching and the way in which you and your class engage with one another.

With that in mind, here are three of the best ways to develop empathy in students while avoiding taking on extra work and, as an unwanted side-effect, actually limiting your own ability to empathise.

1. Learn To Ride Emotions

Reading a good book is like temporarily diving into another world and/or life, without ever having to leave your desk.

Through reading literature, students expand their awareness and understanding of the wide spectrum of emotions, learning to recognise them in themselves and others. In turn, this helps them cultivate empathy, as McKearney explains, “immersion in the right kind of literature and identifying with book characters and their emotions builds real-life empathy.” 

It’s a bit like using a flight simulator to learn how to fly, but never having to leave the ground. Teach your students how to fly by assigning reading projects to do in and outside the classroom. It’ll help your students not only practice their social skills but experience new and previously unknown emotions.

2. Take A School Trip in Nature

Getting out and taking a school trip in nature reduces stress in students, fact. It simply allows them to blow off a bit of steam and avoid being cramped up all day in a stuffy classroom.

But it’s not just getting any old “fresh air” that leads to the best stress-reducing results. One study in Japan that compared walking in a forest to walking in the city showed the former resulted in significantly lower heart rates, higher heart rate variability (meaning less stress), better moods, and lower anxiety.

The same was proven in a study in Finland, too. But what’s all this got to do with empathy? Well, the more stressed you are, the more likely you are to be anxious, defensive, and egocentric. Whereas the more calm and relaxed you are, the more likely you are to be compassionate, caring, and selfless.

3. Do Some Active Listening

To be empathetic with each other, as well as being calm, we also first need to know how to listen. Yet the vast majority of us adults don’t know how to really listen and pay attention to someone.

Really listening to someone, otherwise known as deep or active listening, involves not just hearing what the other person is saying but directing your full attention to them and digesting every word. A simple way you can use active listening to develop empathy in students is with the HEAR acronym: Hear, Engage, Anticipate, and Reply.

What this looks like is stopping multitasking and focusing on the speaker, showing you’re engaged through your body language, recognising that everyone has something to learn from everyone, and taking the time to analyse and consider what is being said, why it’s being said, and what would be an appropriate and productive response to reply with.


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