Empathy is defined as the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. In my classroom of five and six year olds, my students have the ability to understand and express how they are feeling once they learn the vocabulary associated to their states of well being and emotions. Developmentally, students of this age group are also becoming more aware of other’s emotions, but just like every other aspect of child development, everyone learns and develops at their own pace.
Every year, I have a few students who are just not there yet for a variety of reasons. At first, they are self-centered and care only about how they are feeling. But as the school year progresses, one of my main objectives is to help them see that they are part of a bigger picture and that their actions and reactions have a direct impact on themselves and on those around them.
Understanding that everyone in the class is equal but different is essential as the year begins. It is critical for them to learn. With my students this year, I used Paul Solarz’s Marble Theory (#LearnLAP) to turn this abstract concept into a concrete activity as he does with his group of 5th graders. Although some of my students may not get it right away, the earlier I introduce it and the more I refer to it, the quicker they develop their empathetic ability. I started the year out with this activity so all students knew that in this space, everyone is equal, important and that our individual talents are diverse, which in turn, makes us an incredible group of learners. It also allows us to learn many things from one another and enables the students to see that although they may not be the best (add noun here – reader, author, friend, listener..), that they can develop any trait to be the best that they can be. They’re just not there yet* (key word in my classroom!).
How do I do this with my group of five and six year olds? It all starts with them being able use appropriate vocabulary in regards to one’s emotions. Once they can express how they feel, they’ll be better equipped to explain how others may feel in a given situation, or at the very least identify how they are feeling. This is why throughout the year, I engage the students in a variety of activities to develop empathy in our classroom and strengthen our relationships. One way is through books. Every character has feelings and we discuss, using the vocabulary, how these characters are feeling and acting. Some books have amazing illustrations and story lines that help teach empathy to young ones.
Empathy is developed through socialization which is why in my classroom, those hard to reach and hard to teach students stay in my classroom and don’t get referred to the school counselor right away. To be able to understand what another may be feeling or experiencing, one must interact with others and listen attentively. Here are a few other activities I’ve done with my students this year:
- How Full is Your Bucket?, by Carol McCloud. We learn how to be bucket fillers.
- My heart is in your hands. I give a piece of paper to my students. They can do whatever they want to this piece of paper. Some fold it, some crumple it and throw it across the room, others tear it or stomp on it. I wait long enough until they all have marks on their paper. I then ask them to put it in the original crisp condition it was when I gave it to them. As much as they try, they cannot remove the many creases they’ve created. I then tell them that their piece of paper represents their heart. They then understand that every time they hurt someone’s feelings, they mark that person’s heart permanently. Even apologizing doesn’t take the wrinkles out. I put my heart on the whiteboard as a reminder to all students to be kind with their words, bodies and actions.
- It’s all about perspective- put yourself in my place. On a poster, I wrote the number 6 (you could use the letters M, b, d, n or bigger numbers for older students). I have two students stand on either side of the poster so their perspective is different than the person standing across them. I then ask them what number or letter they see. They argue for a while, until they physically walk around to meet the student and look at the poster from their perspective. They then agree that both students are entitled to their opinions and that there is truth to both sides of the poster board depending on what side they are on. I then make them see that it is important in a disagreement to try and understand the other person’s perspective.
Thinking about it now, next year, I would set up a mini debate and separate the class in two teams. One team would be 16 and the other team would be 91. They would come up with points to explain why their number is best. For example, our number is the largest, it represents more, or 16 is easier to count up to and takes less time etc. I could also use the letters u and n and they could come up with words that start with these letters to make an argument. Once they present their points to the other team, I would stop and make them realize, by just turning their card up-side-down that they actually have the same number/letter. It just depends which way you look it. Sometimes, we need to nuance our thinking, because there are more than just black and white answers. There are many shades of grey.
- Choose your words (and actions) wisely. When I saw Rosie Dutton’s powerful lesson on bullying that went viral last summer on social media, I knew I had to do this with my students. Check out her video:
http://globalnews.ca/news/2781692/gone-viral-teacher-uses-two-apples-to-explain-bullying-to-kids/ With my students, I did this activity and tweaked it a little. We talked about what a bully is and what it isn’t. I explained to them that we were to do an experiment to see how we feel inside when we are bullied and how we make others feel when we mistreat them. We then passed one of the apples around and called it a whole bunch of names. I actually felt bad for the apple. At first, some students had a difficult time being mean to this apple, because they know name calling is hurtful. After I told them it was just an experiment, they followed through. One student said a comment that made everyone laugh, and I took the time to tell them that even if they weren’t the one who called the apple that specific name, the fact that they all laughed contributed to the apple’s bruising. To this lesson, after passing around the apple and calling it names, I replaced the apples in their hands with a mirror. Would you ever call yourself these names? No, so what makes it okay to call someone else these names? It doesn’t. This was powerful. I also made a reference to the students negative self-talk. When they say I can’t (spell this word, draw with detail, find this answer…etc.), they are hurting themselves and not valuing their worth. I go back to the Marble Theory and tell them that with practice and passion, they’ll soon be able to do what they can’t yet* and that we would figure it out and learn together. It is so important students love themselves. We end the activity with a compliment share. They say one thing they love about themselves and give one compliment to the person on their left. I will definitely be doing this activity next year. What was most powerful, was when a student of mine went to the washroom and overheard the “older girls” talking badly about another girl in their class. She came back to me and said “Even though they weren’t calling me names, my heart was hurt because I felt bad for the girl who wasn’t there” (même s’ils ne parlaient pas de moi, mon coeur était blessé pour l’autre fille!!). Empathy in grade 1. I was amazed and my heart was full. Imagine if she had the courage to tell those “older girls” how inappropriate it was to be speaking of someone else that way. This just might be my next lesson…standing up for the greater good.
- In my flex classroom, students get to choose where they sit and learn. However in our learning centers each day, I make up the groups to make sure students are building relationships with everyone and to ensure students are problem solving with all students – even those hard to reach and hard to teach students.
It is so important students develop empathy and even more important teachers have empathy – to build on relationships and connect with every student in our classrooms. To truly help our students, we must first know how it feels to be in their shoes. That’s why it is so critical to self reflect on our day, and imagine how our students feel inside and outside of their classroom. When we begin to imagine how it feels to be a student in our classroom, we’ll be able to have much more of an impact and the students in turn will develop empathy because they are living it and seeing it daily in their classroom from a teacher who cares. It comes down to the golden rule: Treat others they way you want to be treated. Be kind. To yourself. To others. Always.