Empathy is one of the key ‘learning muscles’ in Building Learning Power. It is important to teach for so many reasons – happiness and open-mindedness being just two. We all know that by putting ourselves in other people’s shoes and supporting them, we not only make them feel happier but get a greater sense of happiness and wellbeing ourselves. As I mentioned in the introduction to this website, if people in general were better at seeing things from someone else’s point of view, there would be less wars and conflict in our world. This obviously needs to start when we are young and is a skill that can be stretched and developed in young people’s minds through practise and experience.
Empathy is not only important for life outside of and beyond school. I think it glues a classroom together. You can either have a class of children who bicker, tell tales, don’t support one another in their learning (during my time supply teaching, I’ve definitely been in a few of those!); or you can have a class of children who think of one another, are polite, support each other in their learning and are forgiving when other children act in a way that hurts them. I prefer to go for the latter. Teaching this is a ‘drip drip’ process and grows and gains momentum throughout the year. It needs to be integral – part of everything that goes on in the classroom (and out) – rather than ‘bolted on’ or once off lessons taught in PSHE.
I believe empathy starts in kindness – thinking about others, going out of your way to make them feel happy, understanding how your actions can affect others in a positive or negative way. The way we teach this in our class is by having a “Kind Hands” wall where children move their own or their friends faces when they have been spotted being kind. I have always found this paints a picture of kindness for the children and gives them a whole array of contexts they can encounter and use their kindness.
Having already made our kind hands potion in week one (see first blog post and ‘classroom environment‘ on the website), we finally got the children’s faces up on the Kind Hands wall and started to use it this week. The children immediately noticed the laminated pictures of themselves on the wall (for young children, there’s something about having your photo on something that makes it really empowering and exciting for them!). We gathered around the wall and talked about what it was for and how to use it. We hightlighted that it might be a distraction for learning and how to overcome this (I.e. Move someone’s face quickly – don’t “faff” around the wall!). Then we went about starting to use it. What a relief! This year in particular the children have made rapid progress in their acts of kindness just in the space of a week. We’ve had children on for saying ‘please’ and ‘thank you’, children have gone on when they’ve hurt others, told the truth and said sorry (the emphasis being on the kindness of giving a genuine sorry, rather than the hurting! – Everyone makes mistakes.), children have gone on for forgiving others and inviting them to play when they’ve been hurt, for being supportive of someone else’s learning ….. The list goes on! The class already feels more ‘glued together’.
I am especially delighted with one child who said his first spontaneous ‘sorry’ this week – something he has previously found difficult. I can’t wait to see how Kind Hands impacts on his learning about being gentle and kind this year. I really think you can turn children’s lives around with a year of learning about kindness and empathy. I have seen children go from being angry, hurtful and aggressive to kind and loving in one year. These children need empathy and kindness to be part of the classroom ethos most of all. After all, kindness is a habit, and once you start to realise kindness gains you more friends and makes you feel good, you do more of it. Kind Hands is a simple but effective way of doing this. I would love to hear about how kindness and empathy can be made integral and developed among older children. How could this be adapted for, say 15-year-olds? Or 10-year-olds?