Laura Di Ianni, BA Hons, Med.
Trainer in Restorative Practices
Why is empathy critically important to teach and how can it be taught?
There is “that kid” at my daughter’s school. That kid who, in the most subtle and damaging of ways, asserts herself over others. In the young years of kindergarten, this kid has figured out how to create alliances, form groups, and isolate other girls. She brings my daughter to her knees; she exhausts my daughter; she hurts my daughter. My response? Teach her how to use her voice, teach her how to stand up for yourself (in the most ethical of ways), advocate for her at school, but also ask her to consider what makes “that kid” behave the way she does. Why?
First is because a lesson in empathy is critical for self-regulation-the ability to stay calm, focused and alert (self-reg.ca). Empathy lies in what Stuart Shanker calls the prosocial domain. This domain includes:
Empathy is not just putting yourself in the shoes of another however. It includes caring about someone else’s emotions, trying to help others deal with their emotions, and distinguishing between your own emotions and someone else’s (Shanker, 2013, p. 95). This is an incredibly important lesson for my daughter, in particular, who will, with great intensity, take on the emotions of the person in front of her. When someone is angry, she becomes angry. When someone is sad, she becomes sad. When someone is happy, she becomes happy. And, aren’t we all like that to different degrees? Thus, what I need to do is help her find peace. Stay regulated. Yet, real internal peace does not mean to be in a place where there is no noise, trouble or hard work. Real peace means to be in the midst of those things and still be calm in your heart. So when anger knocks at her door, it is incredibly important to help her distinguish between her own and someone else’s emotions. This is what will allow her to remain in peace. Remain regulated.
This is even more important for her learning as a “lack of skills in the prosocial domain can set off a wave of dysregulating effects across the biological, emotional, cognitive, and social domains in [the] five-domain model of self-regulation” (Shanker, 2013, p. 94). In other words, a student’s ability to maintain a sense of peace (to stay regulated) while being immersed in a group of people, is incredibly important to their physical well-being, their emotional well-being, their ability to communicate well with others, and to their learning. Therefore, empathy in the age of generation me (especially as many are immersed in the very non-connected, impulsive worlds of social media) must be addressed. But, how? The answer is through restorative practices.
In a reactionary way (when there is an incident), the use of restorative questions and restorative conferences (iirp.org) challenges students to address the facts of the situation (separating the deed from the doer-allowing all to maintain their dignity); challenges them to distinguish their feelings from someone else’s; and challenges them to not only care about another, but to also help the other in making things right.
When my daughter is hurt by “this kid,” I want the school to have both of them answer these questions and have them meet to discuss their answers (provided the other student is taking accountability or else there is further victimization). This is a learning in and of empathy in the pro-social domain. At home, if my two daughters come to fist-a-cuffs, I use these questions for these very reasons.
As a teacher, to teach empathy in a more preventative way, I teach in circles. I call them instructional circles. This is one way how I am rewriting the irrp model of restorative practices from being solely a tool for behavior to just plain good teaching pedagogy. There are times when everyone speaks and there are times when only volunteers speak (it depends on the difficulty and nature of the question). The questions invite connection and social-emotional learning. But, they also ask each and every student to connect with literature and respond to literature in a way that analyzes the qualities and importance of empathy.
Teaching empathy must also be done by example though. Being restorative means exactly that. It is in your being. For this reason, I have also included, in redefining what it means to restorative in education, the inclusion of listening and language. With my own kids and with the students who I teach, I listen for their feelings and I speak in a way that demonstrates my care for their emotions, my desire to help others with their emotions, whilst distinguishing between their and my emotions. For example, if a student is quite obviously frustrated (as noted in his body language and tone) and refusing to complete the day’s writing task, I may say, “I sense that you might be frustrated with the writing task? As your teacher, I am here to help you. So instead, of my getting frustrated too, let’s see if I can help.” I did this last week with an angry young man who told me he “hated school” and yesterday and today he wrote. He wrote a lot. He smiled a lot today. And, when he was leaving class he said “Good bye Mrs. Di Ianni, I hope you have a really good weekend. Thank you”. Alas, the importance of connection, well-being, and self-regulation to learning. Empathy has quite a bit of muscle. Even with generation me.
So in honour of Ms. Harper Lee, please consider the importance of empathy and consider how we might teach the power of empathy in our homes and in our schools. It is so critically important to the promotion of peace.
**Shanker, Stuart. Calm, Alert, and Learning. Copyright 2013 Pearson Canada Inc., Toronto, Ontario.
**International Institute of Restorative Practices. iirp.org