Teaching Empathy at school

Why Empathy Matters More Than You Think (and why too much can hurt)

Why is it that we feel so much comfort when someone says, “I feel your pain,” “I get it,” “I know what that is like,” or “I’ve been there. I know it’s hard.”

These phrases transform our perception from ‘I am suffering alone’ to ‘Someone who cares about me understands this pain.’ Empathy is a dying trait and one the world desperately needs to have come back. How did we get here? And how do we bring it back? For starters …

The Research

There has been a recent surge among researchers and educators about empathy for a good reason. This blog post takes on three big questions relating to empathy:

  1. What is empathy? What are its benefits, and are there potential dangers of having too much empathy?
  2. What factors limit our ability to empathize?
  3. How can you develop healthy levels of empathy with your students?

As always, you can count on us to bring you high-quality, evidence-based answers to these profound questions. Let’s dive in.

What is Empathy?

Empathy is the intentional attempt to imagine what it is like to be in the emotional situation of another person. Biologically speaking, empathy is the capacity to map another’s experience onto our own brain by using similar neural pathways. These neural maps will roughly mimic the experience of another in your own brain (hence, empathy).

Some experts claim we are not born empathic (Heyes, 2018), but nearly all of us can learn and develop this trait. Exceptions might include some persons on the autism spectrum or those with psychopathy (Lockwood, 2016). When empathy does happen, there are two common pathways.

1. When you can relate to the experience of another, you activate memories of your own comparable situation, thus, creating an emotional response based on those memories. In your brain, this process involves the mirror neurons, insula, and emotion-based networks (de Waal & Preston, 2017).

2. When you can NOT relate to the experience of another, empathy is achieved by trying to imagine what it is like to be in their situation. This is the “try to put yourself in their shoes” approach. Brain activations are completely different in this scenario, compared to #1 above (Preston et al., 2007).

As you might imagine, the first pathway above typically produces higher levels of empathy due to greater emotional connectivity. Researchers describe this as affective empathy – feeling the same emotion as the other person and compassion that motivates you to extend comfort. As an example, if you and a friend have both experienced the loss of a loved one, there is likely a stronger empathic response in both persons.

Why Should We Be Empathic?

What are the implications of having higher levels of empathy? In other words, what are you, your students, and society gaining when empathy levels are high? Here are just a few of the benefits associated with empathy:

  • Greater compassion and altruism. Compassion and altruism cannot exist without empathy (Riess, 2017). Compassion involves a desire to help ease the  suffering of another. Altruism is selflessly acting in a way to relieve the pain of another.
  • Reduces racism. (Todd, Bodenhausen, Richeson, & Galinsky, 2011).
  • Reduces bullying and school violence. (Santos, Chartier, Whalen, Chateau, & Boyd, 2011).
  • Improves relationships. From friendships to romantic partners, empathy boosts the quality of the relationship. (Block‐Lerner, Adair, Plumb, Rhatigan, & Orsillo,  2007).

Can You Have Too Much Empathy?

Empathy or compassion “fatigue” is a real syndrome that can impact anyone who becomes distressed by the suffering of others. It is common among educators who take on too much of the emotional pain of others as if it is their own (Sharp Donahoo, Siegrist, & Garrett-Wright, 2018).

Compassion fatigue is a common struggle for people who are naturally more empathic than others. Approximately 20% of the population can be described as being Highly Sensitive (Acevedo et al., 2014). This innate trait can be described as a heightened sensitivity to physical and emotional stimuli, including the emotions and moods of others. Highly Sensitive people (including Highly Sensitive children) tend to have a higher baseline of empathy.

The takeaway here is simple. Empathy, like many other feeling states, can be destructive at its extremes. Just as it is healthy to occasionally experience mild anger (irritation) but not intense anger (fury), empathy also needs delicate regulation.

Are we Losing the Empathy Skill? What Limits our Ability to Empathize?

Today’s college students are over 40% less empathic than college students in the 1980s and 90s (Konrath, O’Brien, & Hsing, 2011). Why such a shocking decline?

It is difficult to extrapolate what is causing the decline of empathy. However, there is concrete evidence suggesting the following factors decrease empathy.

•    Stress: Acute, brief periods of stress inhibit one’s ability to be empathic in the short-term (Margittai et al., 2015). Chronic stress puts a prolonged strain on the body and brain that can alter the brain’s stress response. This “re-set” (examples would include PTSD and depression) is called allostasis. Allostasis is a Greek word meaning an adjusted or changed stress load. This altered level of stress, and the resulting allostatic load, reduces empathic behavior (Feldman, Levy, & Yirmiya, 2019).

•    Cultural biases: People show a more empathic response to others who look like them, act like them, and share common values (Riess, 2017). These same biases compromise one’s ability to empathize, for example, with people suffering in other parts of the world. Empathic biases are also more likely to show up with a different ethnicity and for those of a different political affiliation.

•    Media: Social media (e.g., texting, Snapchat, emails, Facebook, violent video games) have been vehicles often used with decreasing empathy (Anderson, 2017).

The above referenced study (Konrath, O’Brien, & Hsing, 2011) also points to the wide-spread use of social media that has contributed to reduced face-to-face interactions and the “me” culture, prominent among millennials.

Based on these factors, a clearer picture emerges as to why we’re seeing a surge of headlines calling for a greater focus on fostering empathy in our education systems. The good news is there is much that can be done to reverse these trends.

Practical Application

Below you will find practical tools to foster greater empathy among your students, and which can work for you, too. Be sure to check out the section at the end about how to avoid “empathy burnout,” especially if you work with students who’ve had their unfair share of adverse childhood experiences.

1. Teach the Skills of Empathy 
Start by teaching the skills associated with being empathic: good listening, perspective-taking, and compassion.

How do you teach these skills? Begin with role modeling, direct instruction, practice, and feedback. Teach students to make eye contact, face the speaker, restate critical points, or ask clarifying questions. To teach perspective-taking, find autobiographical reading passages written by those often misunderstood. Present an issue and have students defend one side; then, have them switch and defend the other perspective.

Since healthy levels of empathy lead to compassion, support students to organize their efforts and do something altruistic for those they are learning to have an understanding of. Will a Kindergarten bake sale to raise money for the victims of the fires in Australia make a significant dent in that costly tragedy? No, but the contributions may foster the students’ empathy and will get the donations going!

2. Find Common Ground
It can be tough for some students to connect with the experiences of those suffering in ways they cannot relate to. How can a student living in the suburbs with three grocery stores within a mile of their home empathize with those starving in mud villages halfway across the world? Or, bringing it closer to home, how do you help a student feel empathy for their classmate who just lost a parent when they have never experienced that kind of loss themselves?

Remember, empathy does not require one to have experienced the exact same circumstance. What is needed is a connection to the same feeling. “Have you ever been so hungry your stomach hurt really bad? Imagine feeling like that all the time.” Or, “Has your mom/dad ever gone away on a LONG trip and you missed them so much it hurts? Remember what that felt like.”

3. Just for Teachers: Avoid empathy burnout
Students witnessing or experiencing trauma (e.g. school shooting, death of a friend, family mamber or teacher, the aftermath of a weather catastrophe) is heart-breaking, and it can have a considerable impact on you. How can you still be at your best for your students?

Those with a high capacity for empathy can often “go numb.” How can you still find a healthy way to tune into the emotional pain of your students? There is evidence (Jeffrey & Downie, 2016) for the following three tools:

1. Take the “I” out of Empathy. Too often, when someone is suffering, people think: How would I feel if this was happening to me? Turns out internalizing ‘their experience’ does little to help you or them. Instead, focus on their perspective: How might ____ be feeling right now? Keeping this small distance from the experience helps you stay more resourceful and able to act on your compassion.

2. Re-tool Your Mind. If you find yourself leaving school every day upset, sad, or in tears, a daily mindfulness routine can help you relax and recharge. Check out each of these three app options: Calm®, Waking Up®, or Smiling Mind®. One of them may be right for you. Remember, unless you are serious about changing, shifting, or upgrading your brain, nothing will change for the better.

3. Put Your Big Feelings into Action. Pro-social behaviors can build greater resilience in you and increase your capacity to be with those who are suffering. Volunteer once a month at a food bank; clean out your bookshelves and donate them to a women’s shelter; donate money to a cause you are passionate about. There are endless ways to be your most altruistic and generous self. Want to find a way to give back to your local community? Go to: www.justserve.org and type in your zip code for a list of local organizations looking for volunteers.

As social beings, it is critical that we continue to connect with each other, including (and perhaps, especially) through struggles and suffering. It brings us closer together and helps us heal. From the suggestions above, take one small step toward healthy levels of empathy for you and your students.

Eric Jensen
CEO, Jensen Learning
Brain-Based Education

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