10 min read

Writing an article about the importance of preparing early to teach empathy in response to current events seemed like an easy home run, but then I started researching and realized that focusing solely on empathy would be an unbalanced approach.

Much like the term ‘mindfulness,’ empathy has taken on a pop-culture meaning that is far simpler than the nuanced reality that it is. In order to teach something, it is important to understand the content fully. With this in mind, I went in search of what skills should be taught so that a healthy sense of empathy surfaces in our students.

The deeper you dig down the empathy hole, the more difficult it is to find sources that don’t associate empathy with morality. As a teacher, I start to get unsettled here. Now we’re talking about teaching morality?! Whoa, wait a minute. This is a weird gray area for educators. It is general practice in most American communities for families to impart moral teachings to a child. We, as educators, are to model positive universal truths (i.e. kindness, integrity) and the positive morals appropriate to our community and national culture.

Come on now. If you have ever been a teacher, you know full well you have played a role in the moral development of the students you have taught.

Deeper still: How can we, as educators, objectively teach students the skills necessary to be moral and empathic members of the community, while setting aside our own biases and misunderstandings, if necessary?

Now I am getting to the big question: What factors will maximize the likelihood that our education system helps provide the community with new members who are both capable of empathy and predisposed to continue improving both their own and their community’s well-being through moral acts?

I am going to first break down the components of empathy, each of which must be coached and taught for authentic and intentional empathy to take place. Then, I will discuss executive functions and their role in empathy (and…dare I say…morality). But before I do, note the most important factor.

Even with all of these things in place in the classrooms, there is one key ingredient that makes it at all viable: a deep, culturally responsive, and enduring partnership with the parents of our students and the larger community that they live within.

Understanding the Components of Empathy

There isn’t a great deal of literature on the components of Empathy. Most academic papers all pointed back to a single source: Decenty and Cowell’s 2014 article, “Friends or Foes: Is Empathy Necessary for Moral Behavior?” They describe empathy as a “catch-all” term for three decidedly different processes: Emotional sharing, empathic concern, and perspective-taking.

Some level of these three characteristics may be instinctual and initiated very early in a child’s development. However, instruction in the areas that inform appropriate behaviors around empathy is critical during the time students’ brains are developing their prefrontal cortex.

The prefrontal cortex is responsible for many things essential to social interaction: how we regulate emotions, control our impulsive behavior, assess risk, and make long-term plans. It isn’t fully matured until our mid-twenties. Take note! The things I just mentioned are executive functions, which I will certainly get to shortly.

Meanwhile, take a look at the three proposed processes forming authentic empathy.

Emotional Sharing: The experience of feeling distressed at observing others in distress is known as emotional sharing.

Empathic Concern: The motivation to care for an individual who is either vulnerable or distressed is referred to as empathic concern.

Perspective Taking: When you intentionally put yourself into the mindset of another individual and try to imagine what they are thinking and feeling, you are taking on their perspective.

I have seen each of these processes played out NUMEROUS times on playgrounds, in cafeterias, and at track practice (which I coached). Our high expectations of our students must include high expectations around their use of intentional empathy. So how do we get them there with the consistency of high expectations in all grades?

Let’s Get a Round of Applause for…

Executive Functions

One quote sent me down a rabbit hole that changed my entire view of teaching empathy in the context of conflict. “In resource allocation situations, [when morality and empathy are in conflict], empathy can become a source of immoral behavior” (Batson et al., 1995).

As I processed that last statement, something became very clear to me. It is one thing to teach empathy, but what is the point if empathy can be subverted so easily by the need to belong? That led me down a path to anti-bullying instruction. I began to see a pattern emerging across this and all of the socio-emotional curricula I have taught throughout my career in special education and teacher training.

The common thread was that true empathy is made more intentional by the thinker’s executive functioning skills. If we are going to teach our students empathy, we must also strengthen their executive functioning abilities. I propose that this will also have the wonderful consequence of positively impacting student engagement.

What exactly are executive functioning skills?

As you read through this list of commonly recognized executive functioning skills, ponder two things. First, what functions are necessary for intentional empathy? Secondly, which ones are essential for school success? (Hint: They are all essential for both empathy and school success. More bang for your buck!)

I have included resources for teaching and strengthening each of the following examples of executive functions across all age groups after each function.

Sustaining Attention:

The ability to maintain attentional focus on relevant stimuli, such as listening to others, watching a presentation, and listening to instruction. In regard to empathy, this comes into play when you consider active listening, which is necessary to fully understand the experiences of others.

Impulse Control

The ability to refrain or delay response to a sudden strong urge or desire to act. Giving the brain time to fully understand and process information is imperative to intentional empathy. This is also a very important skill in the emotional self-regulation toolbox. You could look at impulse control as empathy for your future self, as it allows you to step into your own shoes and consider the effects of your behaviors before you act.

Emotional Self-Regulation

The ability to control one’s behavior, emotions, and thoughts, particularly the ability to manage disruptive emotions and impulses. The link to empathy and moral action is clear with this function. Understanding one’s own emotions is key to the ability to control one’s emotional expression and responses to the experience of empathy. This is a key function that is often negatively impacted by Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) and trauma.

Planning/Prioritizing

This involves the ability to select the most important/time-sensitive tasks, think about the activities required to achieve the task, and to make a plan to meet the goals of the task. When deciding what actions to take during and after an empathic response, planning is important. This is especially true when dealing with a moral issue or when attempting to change factors that are causing distress to an individual or larger groups.

Cognitive Flexibility

The ability to switch between thinking about multiple different concepts, tasks, or strategies simultaneously. This is a key function in being able to adapt to new situations and environments. This skill allows us to persist with current behavioral strategies for as long as they are productive at achieving goals and to be able to switch approaches and strategies when there is a change in the situation or environment. This is especially important when there is a plethora of information that is available, which with the internet is the norm. It is a required skill for perspective-taking, which is very important for intentional empathy.

Working Memory

The ability to keep anything you need in mind while you are doing something, like a phone number as you are dialing or keeping story events in order as you process the meaning of a book. This is essential when processing cause and effect accurately.

Self-Monitoring

The ability to observe and evaluate one’s own behavior or keeping track of one’s performance in order to make adjustments. This is an important function for becoming an independent learner.

Task Initiation

This is our ability to become motivated, to take on new tasks, to persevere at those tasks until their completion, even if we encounter challenges. It is one thing to have an empathic response. It is a whole other matter to initiate and persevere at tasks which deal with systemic changes.

Organization

The ability to put things together in a logical order, often by creating systems. As we watched the Nation’s reaction to the Black Lives Matter protests, it was clear that they became more and more organized. Organizing our behaviors is one way to make the maximum impact when we begin taking action. This is also crucial for every type of schooling and career.

Concept Formation

The ability to sort specific experiences and information into general rules or classes. Concept formation greatly impacts how students respond when they practice intentional empathy and make decisions about how to react.

Understanding Different Points of View

This is essentially perspective-taking, being able to understand a situation from the point of view of another person.

Next Week: I Will Discuss Metacognition and Mindfulness

One of the best tools you can provide your students with as they strengthen their executive functioning skills are metacognitive strategies and skills. Metacognition is essentially thinking about thinking. If you would like to prime the pump, check out this resource on metacognition from Vanderbuilt University.

As you process this information on executive functions, consider how you can embed practices and strategies for their development within your content area and for your specific age groups. These are skills that will pay dividends in their ability to function as empathic learners.

%d bloggers like this: