Empathy, as defined by Psychology Today, is the ability to understand, recognize, and share the emotions of others. Empathy is both a trait that comes naturally to some, and a skill that others may need to work at. Empathy is also an important aspect of social emotional learning as it allows us to better understand the perspectives of others. Unfortunately, with the rise of Covid-19 empathy skills have been on a decline, notes Psychology Today and CNN. With that in mind, we thought that it would be important to discuss ways in which you and your clients can improve empathy.

As described above, empathy generally means understanding, recognizing, and sharing the emotions of others. CNN and VeryWellMind discuss the different types of empathy: emotional empathy and cognitive empathy. Emotional empathy tends to be more intuitive where one is easily inclined to understand and care for another’s emotions. Cognitive empathy, on the other hand, refers to one’s ability to critically consider another’s perspective and emotional situation. 

Greater Good’s article Six Habits of Highly Empathic People and New York Times discusses that empathetic people tend to have a healthy curiosity about others, listen intently, take a walk in another’s shoes, challenge prejudices and try to discover commonalities. This TedTalk article mentions the importance of building empathy from the inside out. In other words the article discusses the importance of practicing self-compassion and self-care to increase empathy for others. According to Positive Psychology it is also important to step out of your comfort zone and examine your biases (both implicit and explicit) to become more empathetic.

Not only is empathy an important skill in the “adult” world, it is an immensely important skill for children to practice. Edutopia’s article Empathy in the Classroom: Why Should I Care? explains that empathy builds positive classroom culture, prepares students to become leaders, and strengthens community. One way classrooms can help practice empathy, as noted by Positive Psychology, is by helping students identify their own emotions – one can’t be empathic if they cannot identify their own emotions. One great exercise that Positive Psychology explains to help students explore emotions and practice empathy is to have them create an emotion collage – where they find and identify different facial expressions that they can associate with certain emotions.

There are many great exercises that you can use in classrooms to help students increase their empathy. According to Edutopia and the Making Caring Common Project teaching empathy requires educators to practice what they preach by modeling empathy. Teaching empathy also requires the education space to be seen as a safe space for students to practice their empathy skills. For more classroom exercises and worksheets on empathy CommonSense offers a multitude of free resources to help bring empathy to any classroom, regardless of the subject being studied.

Remember intentional practice is key to building and maintaining SEL skills!

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