Individual and societal success depends on raising and educating children who care about others. But we have misled today’s children to believe success is achieved through test scores, material wealth, and personal gain. In turn, there has been a measurable shift toward self-centeredness at a time when society depends more, not less, on people who give of themselves.
Developed through emotional attachment with other human beings, empathy is our ability to recognize, feel, and respond to the needs and suffering of other people. While the digital age has given children more ways to connect with others than ever before, many researchers are concerned with how social networking and decreased face-to-face relationships may have contributed toward a 48% drop in empathetic concern for others over the past few decades. Studies have linked low empathy to increased bullying, narcissism, rigid belief systems, and civic apathy. We have a moral imperative to rethink how we teach kids to care in a more hurried, impersonal, and data-driven world.
By developing empathy in children, teachers not only help kids feel valued and understood, they also impact social change and innovation for decades to come. Volumes have been written about how to teach empathy, and there is still much to learn. In an excellent article from the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley, author Roman Krznaric, Ph.D., claims that highly empathetic people:
All of these behaviors foster personal growth and lifelong learning. They also contribute to the growth of society as a whole, particularly empathy’s role in inspiring social change. As William Deresiewicz underscored in his recent book, Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life, the goal of education should always be “to leverage learning as an agent of social change—the kind of objective that makes leadership and citizenship into something more than pretty words.”
This article focuses on the intersection of empathy and citizenship, an area of research I have pursued for almost a decade and the topic of my book, Tomorrow’s Change Makers: Reclaiming the Power of Citizenship for a New Generation. In-depth interviews with students who became engaged in social and environmental causes in middle and high school showed that each was motivated to serve the greater good through their ability to empathize with individuals and feel compassion for victimized, oppressed, and marginalized groups. The six habits below were derived from my research with students who spoke about how their greatest teachers fostered empathy and inspired them to put empathy into action in the world.
For children to develop the capacity to feel empathy for others, they must feel seen, felt, and understood regardless of how they learn. Teachers who know, appreciate, and respect students beyond academics help children feel cared for and increase their ability to care for others.
Young people who transform empathy into action in their communities attribute mentoring by teachers as one of the primary reasons they developed a belief in self. Without this sense of self-efficacy, students claim they would not have come to believe that they could help others or change the world. According to students, teachers fostered self-efficacy by:
Teachers who emphasize caring, cooperation, compassion, kindness, service, teamwork, and the importance of getting along with classmates are powerful empathy-builders. From elementary school through high school, children should evolve through three developmental stages as they take on roles in society: (1) Being responsible citizens; (2) Improving their communities; and (3) Contributing to solve societal problems. These civic roles are intertwined with developing empathy.
Ryan, a volunteer making a difference in Boston’s Chinatown, said of his teachers, “The fact that they are so dedicated to teaching, helping, and empowering students . . . that’s such a meaningful gesture. They are always trying to give back to the next generation. That really inspires me.” Most students who developed high levels of empathy named teachers as their primary role models. They learned to become their best selves from teachers who exemplified the following traits:
When teachers cultivate curiosity about how individuals and groups of people see the world differently, they expand children’s intellectual, interpersonal, and emotional boundaries. They help students see and understand differing perspectives. When challenged to explore prejudices, find commonalities, and glean meaning from what they imagine life would be like to walk in another person’s shoes, students build a greater capacity for empathy.
Teachers who weave meaningful service-learning into their classrooms help students turn empathy into action by building skills in critical thinking, planning, organizing, and problem solving. Youth gain the most from service projects that push them out of their emotional comfort zones and allow them to see the world differently. For example, when Danielle participated in a geography class project that teamed up with Heifer International, it ignited a passion for environmental stewardship. She said, “It changed the way I saw service from something you did on the side when you had time, to a lifestyle.”
Marilyn Price-Mitchell, PhD, is the author of Tomorrow’s Change Makers: Reclaiming the Power of Citizenship for a New Generation. A developmental psychologist and researcher, she works at the intersection of positive youth development and education.
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