Summer break is winding down and the new school year is revving up. Most kids are both nervous and excited, focusing on academics and on how they will do socially. They will attempt to relieve some of the social pressure by goading their parents into buying them the coolest clothes from headwear down to footwear. Parents and kids scuffle in the department store, doing the maddening dance of “You don’t need different colors of the same shoe!”….”Yes I do!”
As a parent, to stop the argument (or dance) you may try to put yourself in your child’s shoes. The phrase “Don’t judge a man until you’ve walked a mile in his shoes” is not a comment on making sure you know what color of shoes another person is wearing. It characterizes the concept of empathy, the ability to understand another person’s emotional state or feelings. Empathy is an important component in establishing human connection.
In her article, “Beyond Standardized Tests – Teaching Empathy”, Alison Hockenberry summarizes the impact of empathy writing, “it [empathy] is the basis for collaboration as well as communication and creativity. It is good for cultural sensitivity and conflict resolution.” Taking time to understand how your child feels about “needing” those shoes, being sensitive to his or her feelings in the moment, may stop that tangled tango and start a smooth samba.
This concept is being applied to education. Xuequin Jiang is the Deputy Principal of a very prestigious and selective school in China that matriculates students internationally. He is quoted as saying, “There’s convincing scientific, psychological, pedagogical, and anecdotal data to suggest that children are naturally empathic, and learn best through collaborating with each other, and at their own speed.” In other words, he has identified that teaching with empathy helps to connect with a child and therefore help him or her learn.
When people feel cared for, listened to and understood, they communicate better. They feel invited to say what is truly on their minds. They are less stressed, more cooperative and therefore in a much better position to acquire knowledge and enjoy the process.
The ability to be empathic can enrich professional and social experiences. For example, the Internet brings us into more contact with more people from more cultures than ever. We are able to contact virtually anybody anywhere at the click of a button. Empathy facilitates the flexibility to change with changing situations, handle different people differently. It nurtures the ability to better understand another person, recognize the needs or feelings of that person. It decreases frustration and resentment therefore freeing precious mental capacity to handle productive endeavors such as problem solving and the pursuit of fun.
For these reasons, the implementation of empathy as a teaching tool in school is an elegant idea. The younger it is nurtured the better it gets. The mind learns through a lifetime, but assimilates learning into permanent abilities more quickly and efficiently at a younger age.
In certain schools in Washington, DC and Baltimore, teachers are learning an empathy-centered training program. The name of the program is “Inspired Teaching”. A component of the training is to be “taught” by the children. This helps to see how the children are experiencing their education. Teachers are better able to understand a child’s school experience from that child’s perspective. The teachers are able to provide more individualized instruction to the children. It helps parents support the child’s education. At the schools involved, 82% of the teachers report students are more engaged in class.
Being a psychiatrist, my friends and family often ask, jokingly, “How does that make you feel?” While it is funny in context, it is an important question. It is a question that should be taught both how to ask and how to listen to the answer in psych 101 of any program, be it business or basket weaving.
The demonstration of empathy does not always work. Some kids, for whatever reason, are in no place to receive it and may mock it. In that moment, remember that ultimately empathy can stop a fight, an argument or a bad dance. The goal is not to teach that you are right and they are wrong. It is to teach that, no matter what color, size or shape of a person’s shoes, the important thing is to help that person be comfortable in them.
Reference: Hockenberry, Alison “Beyond Standardized Tests – Teaching Empathy”, The Christian Science Monitor June 8, 2012.