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Transforming our schools through empathy

In the first part of this series, we talked about how classroom management becomes easier and more effective when viewed through an empathic lens. In the second part, we explored how teaching empathy to students helps improve the learning process.

In this third and final act, we are having a look at how empathy works in schools at large. In fact, this is a call to thinking of schools as communities of learning that are dedicated to the long term success of students. As such, relationship building and carefully considered approaches to discipline take center stage.

How empathy can help transform schools

There are many benefits for encouraging an empathic mindset beyond the classroom. Here are my three top arguments that show how empathy can help transform schools.

Build strong relationships as a way to strengthen communities

I have already touted the benefits of empathy in the classroom, specifically on how it can help improve learning outcomes. In fact, that effect can be amplified to reach the entire schools, districts, or why not, the entire community. However, here is the catch: if all teachers are encouraged to be more empathic, it is much easier to reap the benefits, since this approach has more chances of succeeding when everyone is working together. By encouraging positive teacher-student and student-student relationships, schools can raise entire generations of people that are well adjusted, empathic, and involved in their communities.

Incorporate empathy for prevention

Empathy, in a way, is a very pragmatic way to solve problems, or better yet, to prevent them. An empathic school culture can help increase classroom engagement, lead to fewer detentions, fewer cases of school avoidance, and school-related stress. From this perspective, it is a better method than waiting for problems to implode and then start fixing them. As we have seen, punitive actions are short term solutions, and even then, they do not fix the root cause of misbehavior, and definitely do not lead to improved academic performance in most cases.

Kindness is free

Unlike school supplies, promoting empathy is free. Of course, free does not mean that it is also simple, and that there will not be periods of adjustment to a new way of doing things. Yet, we seem to often forget that change can be done little by little, with every action that we take. For example, I greatly appreciated every teacher that took the time to actively listen when I had a problem, no matter how small or big. Even five minutes of their time meant that I felt appreciated and more eager to learn. Plus, there are many organizations and that offer free resources to promote social-emotional learning.

6 Ideas for promoting empathy in schools

There is no infallible, step by step recipe to solve all problems. School leaders can determine what works and what does not for their schools. Here are some ideas for building a positive and empathic school environment.

  1. Start with school culture

    School culture is directly influenced by its leadership. A positive school culture, if nurtured well, can become a school leader’s best ally.

    Consider this: what are your school’s mission and values? Now, when did you last see someone behave according to those values? When did you witness someone do the exact opposite?

    Perhaps the biggest barrier to incorporate more empathic solutions in schools is the “we have always done it like this” mentality. That can be applied to anything from the way teachers give out handouts to the way they think about discipline. For example, a school leader can start by identifying whether teachers have a rigid definition of what acceptable behavior is and how that might have an impact on school culture.

  2. Build stronger partnerships with families

    It is no secret that building family-school partnerships helps students learn better. The home environment has a huge influence on attitudes related to school, education, and even learning goals. When schools and parents or caregivers work together as a team, the student is more likely to be motivated and focused. In addition, attendance and class behavior are vastly improved.

    With this purpose in mind, the school should have a clear strategy of engaging families that includes communication, collaboration, participation in school activities, consultative decision-making, and more. In addition, it is also in the student’s best interest that teachers and parents agree with and send the same messages. For example, parents and teachers can set a learning goals for a child needs to improve their reading skills, so parents can make sure that the student continues to practice at home.

    At the same time, teachers and school leaders can communicate to parents that showing empathy and understanding are much better ways of motivating students to learn, even when they are struggling at school. In some cases, schools can offer support for families with the help of counselors.

  3. More support for teachers

    As discussed previously, most teachers teach because they want to make a difference and are highly empathic people. That does not change no matter how many generations of students have graduated from their class. What changes is their capacity to withstand stress and better deal with everyday problems. Think of their motivation as a battery- it slowly drains away when they lack adequate support to do their job. That is when empathy becomes less of a priority.

    A school leader that listens actively to teachers has better chances of understanding and helping them succeed, despite roadblocks and many challenges. Teachers need to feel valued and they need real solutions, not just policies that sound great on paper. For example, school-wide interventions such as Positive Behavior Support have proven to help create a positive school environment. Strengthening ties with from their supervisor, administrator, and even parents is also a good way to build up a great support system for teachers.

  4. Include empathy in the curriculum

    I am not saying that empathy or soft skills should replace Algebra or History lessons. The good part about teaching a soft skill is that the “what” or the content does not need to change. The secret lies in how you teach it, so no need to overhaul the entire curriculum. In fact, empathy can be considered a part of student-centered learning, an approach in which students are given voice and choice.

    Read more: The journey to student-centered learning

    Once designed with empathy in mind, classes become even more engaging. A fun way to spark a conversation about empathy is to involve students from different classes and grades using things that they already love such as books or movies. The #WeNeedDiverseBooks project created by Jennifer Bartell is a great example of how she inspires her diverse group of students to write their own stories through YA literature.

  5. Encourage inclusive extracurricular activities

    Obviously, students benefit from extracurricular activities such as sports or clubs. Students need to feel a sense of belonging, learn how to socialize, how to deal with failures, and the benefits spill over to the classroom, where they are better equipped to achieve academic goals. Most importantly, schools can show empathy by adding inclusive extracurricular activities that can bring together students of all abilities.

    Even more, students also benefit from volunteering opportunities, where they can build empathy by helping others. This can be as simple as having students that volunteer to greet younger ones, or that are in charge of helping them find their way around the school building.

  6. Leading by example

    Last but not least, you don’t have to have an official title to be a change agent. Surely, a leader has a great deal of influence and can show the way for others by demonstrating compassion. Nonetheless, anybody can lead by example.

    To borrow a term from the business world, informal leadership is crucial to any organization. We all know that teacher that always goes the extra mile, has some experience and is also glad to mentor other teachers. “Influencer” educators should be encouraged and supported, as well as recognized for their empathic mindset. They can be a school leader’s greatest ally in switching to a kinder and gentler approach to discipline.
    In addition, they should be given plenty of opportunity to interact with other educators.

    Remember: empathy can be contagious!


Empathy makes the world go round, or at least helps schools become the loving and caring environment that students need to succeed, no matter their background. Creating that special connection is essential to implementing student-centered learning, as well as an efficient way to support learning in general. Implementing a more empathic approach in schools helps support wellbeing for everyone involved, having a ripple effect on entire communities.

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