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“Opinion is really the lowest form of knowledge. It requires no accountability, no understanding. The highest form of knowledge is empathy, for it requires us to suspend our egos and live in another’s world. It requires profound purpose larger than the ‘self’ kind of understanding.” -Bill Bullard.

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines empathy as, “The action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing feelings, thoughts and experiences of another of either the past or present, without having the feelings, thoughts and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner.” Simply put, it is the ability to understand and share the feelings of others.

As opposed to ‘sympathy’, which limits itself to feeling sorry or pity for another, empathy digs deeper and has the ability to forge meaningful relationships between individuals.

Since empathy is a critical life skill to have both for interpersonal and intrapersonal growth, it becomes imperative to nurture it in early childhood. It is considered just the right time to help children develop the faculty to ‘step into another’s shoes.’

Young children have an innate sense of empathy, which needs to be recognized, appreciated and fostered. It reminds me of an incident quoted by Dr. Helen Riess, an Associate Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. On a plane ride, while most passengers were trying to deal with the shrieking cries of a very disturbed baby, a 3-year-old toddler went right up to the wailing infant and offered his own pacifier! Clearly, the toddler felt and experienced the agony of the baby and wanted to do something to soothe it. That, is empathy and all human beings are born with it.

Empathy in Education:

The world is ever changing bringing people closer to each other. Interactions are not just transactional. People are seeking to have deep and purposeful relationships with others personally and professionally. Thus, now more than ever, empathy has emerged as the single most essential competency one can possess. And what better way to facilitate this than in the form of education.

Education is an integral part of growing up. Since education is not just about academic learning, traits like kindness, empathy, caring for others etc. are crucial for well-rounded development.

The last few years have seen significant changes in the education domain. Smaller classrooms, trained and aware teachers, supportive school managements and well-exposed students have made way for empathy to make an impactful change in the lives of both, the students and teachers.

Sports and Empathy:

As much as sports is about winning, we cannot discount the fact that it equips us with skills to navigate through life. Sport teaches us to persevere, to accept wins and losses equally, patience, hard work and many such traits. But most of all, it has the ability to make us empathetic people. A classic example is this year’s Olympic Games where 2 high jumpers shared the gold medal is pure gold! Both the opponents were able to feel the pain, hard work and hardships of the other. Hence, it is absolutely paramount to incorporate sport on a higher level in our education system.

Empathy and the Teacher:

The word ‘teaching’ is now replaced with terms like ‘facilitation’, ‘mentoring’, ‘coaching’, ‘edifying’ etc. These words describe a process where both, the mentor and the mentee are in a symbiotic teaching and learning relationship. There is scope for both to teach and learn from each other. Karl Meninger, the American psychiatrist says, “What a teacher is, is more important than what he teaches.” As much as a teacher is expected to “complete the portions”, it’s equally important for him/her to model behaviour, skills and values which they wish to imbibe in their students.

Below are a few ways in which a teacher can help facilitate empathy in young minds. These may help in building a life-long and meaningful teacher-student relationship, which transcends beyond the classroom:

  • Be a model: Children see and pick up cues from adults, so give them something great to imitate. Try exhibiting empathy is class, with students, colleagues, parents, housekeeping staff etc.
  • Inclusive Lessons: The classroom is a mixed bag, with learners possessing different abilities, strengths and weaknesses. An empathetic teacher would strive to cater to all their requirements. Their sensitivity would enable them to set-up Multiple Intelligence corners to involve kids having varied learning preferences. A slow learner or gifted child would not feel left out if the teacher is able to pick up on their cues and help them accordingly.
  • Self-love and Self-empathy: One cannot give what one does not have. The teacher cannot disseminate the power of being an empathetic person if he/she is unable to empathize with oneself. A bad day, failures, vulnerabilities are all part of being human. It is absolutely ok for teachers to put their hand up and say, “I’m not ok, I am not at my best today, but I still love myself and am compassionate towards myself.” This teaches young children that it is it alright to feel bad, be vulnerable, and yet strive to achieve excellence despite all hurdles.
  • Quiet Time: In between the hustle of a busy day, a 10-to-15-minute quiet time can help children regroup and rejuvenate. Students become aware of their thoughts and feelings, both positive and negative. It is important to assure them that all feelings and emotions are welcome. Only then will they be able to appreciate and accept themselves and others.
  • Humility and Openness: Teachers need to be open, humble, and willing to listen and learn from students. Students who feel heard, validated and accepted for who they are, grow up to be confident, self-assured, and empathetic people.

As they say, teaching is a work of heart! A good teacher will help children understand that no matter what, being aware and empathetic towards oneself and others is the only way forward. A good leader not only leads with rules and regulations, but also with kindness. Perhaps, that is why people say, ‘Catch them young.’ However, what I like to believe is, “It is never too early to help children learn about empathy, and if you think about it, it is never too late either!”

       By Chaitra Kulkarni