At its simplest, empathy is the awareness of the feelings and emotions of other people. It goes beyond sympathy, which is often thought of as feeling for someone, and instead, is feeling with that person.
When we are empathetic toward someone else, we think before we speak or act, and instead, find a way to make them feel supported, loved, cared for, or even just simply understood. Practicing empathy can be as deep and as challenging as being there for someone during rough times, or as surface as making an effort to be kind to the people and things we come across in our own little worlds each and every day. This mindset entails the basic necessity of respect and the knowledge that we must treat others as we want to be treated ourselves.
The sooner we understand what empathy means, and the importance of it, the sooner we can live a more peaceful existence. Various studies even reinforce that the more empathy a child displays, the less likely they are to bully someone else. They are also more likely to share with and help others, and less likely to be antisocial or exhibit uncontrolled aggressive behaviours. This is why educators are devoting more attention to empathy in recent years.
Yalda Modabber is one of those people. Now the principal and founder of Golestan Education, a Persian-language preschool and after-school program in Berkeley, California that collaborates with other local schools on cultural education, she admits that being bullied as a child motivated her to integrate empathy into every level at her school.
“It was nonstop for two years,” admits Modabber. “That period in my life was so hard that I blocked it out. I don’t even remember my teachers’ names. The entire class turned on me.”
Research suggests that people who are exposed to empathy earlier in life have a better chance of beholding longer-lasting emotional benefits than those exposed to it later, or not at all. In fact, one recent study discovered that children taught social and emotional skills in preschool and kindergarten have, in comparison to kids who don’t have empathy integrated into their curriculum, better social skills and fewer behaviour problems.
We’re Born With It
Infants as young as 8 to 14 months can show precursors to empathy via signs like concern for a parent if they’re hurt or upset. And the older we get, the more our empathetic behaviour becomes apparent. A study from the University of Munich in Germany discovered that children between the ages of five and seven increasingly anticipate feelings of concern for other people.
It Can Lead To Success
Empathy can also aid kids in becoming more successful as well. A recent study from Duke and Penn State discovered that kids who shared and helped others were more likely to graduate high school and have full-time jobs thereafter.
“It’s not just children,” explains Tina Malti, a psychology professor at the University of Toronto. “It’s a life issue. I think a holistic view emphasizes living a more balanced life. If you only focus on academic outcomes, or work outcomes, you are going to miss the whole being of a person. It needs to be balanced in a healthful and meaningful way. And the word ‘meaningful’ always entails the whole being.”
There Are Many Ways To Build Empathy
There is no one size fits all when it comes to integrating empathy into an academic atmosphere. For instance, at Golestan Education, Yalda Modabber brings her dog, Nika, to work and allows her students to feed her, groom her, and give her water.
Research shows that people who have an attachment to a pet are actually more empathetic, with one recent study conducted by the American Humane Association showing how having an animal in the classroom increases students’ feelings of compassion and empathy towards one another.
“It’s not about bringing in a dog,” notes Malti. “It’s about teaching a student how to care for another. You can have a good teacher or a horrible teacher. If a student just watches a teacher taking care of the animal, and doesn’t participate, she doesn’t learn as well. But research shows if you have the child care for the animal, or even an infant, herself, it’s different. How you learn how to care for something is important.”
Malti also urges the importance of focusing on the individual.”Every single classroom is a microcosm,” Malti explains. “And each child in that classroom has varying capacities of mental needs. If you don’t look at the varying needs, you miss the opportunity to promote empathy in the best way possible.”
In addition to bringing her dog to school, Modabber has the students do gardening. “They’re nurturing seeds to grow,” Modabber explains. “They’re giving it water and sunlight, they take care of it every day. Then they plant it. They don’t just pick them. They are really appreciating these plants. They see them. They’re present. They’re aware of these plants and how they’re growing.”
Every day before lunch, the students sing a song and chant to thank the earth for the food they’re about to eat—the food they’ve grown. Once they have finished, they sing a song to thank the chef who prepared it for them. This gratitude goes hand in hand with empathy according to research, which links higher empathy to less aggression.
Connecting with other cultures helps to improve empathy as well, according to Modabber, who says that every Friday, the children learn about a different country or culture, so they can better relate to people with context.
Video On Empathy
What is the best way to ease someone’s pain and suffering? In this beautifully animated RSA Short, Dr Brené Brown reminds us that we can only create a genuine empathic connection if we are brave enough to really get in touch with our own fragilities.