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Why Is Empathy an Important Relational Skill for 21st Century Students?

Updated: Mar 17, 2019


As 21st Century teachers, we are tasked with not only teaching content but character as well. One of the most critical relational skills for character building is empathy. Empathy is the ability for a person to put themselves in another’s shoes. It is a critical relational skill because if our students are unable to imagine themselves in another’s position, contemplate the subjunctive feeling of how something might affect them, and therefore react accordingly, they will miss out on key interpersonal relationship building opportunities.


The opportunity for our students to build relationships is vital to their wellbeing. Humans are social beings and the absences of strong positive relationships creates isolation. When students feel isolated or that they do not belong, their emotional, academic, personal, and social well-being is negatively impacted and can lead to withdrawal, negative behaviors such as drug/alcohol abuse, academic failure, and/or feelings of shame.


Building empathy in students is not just a social justice issue, but a life skill that is critical to human development. How might teachers provide opportunities to build empathy? Below are a few ideas:


Begin with self-reflection. What makes them how they are? Family, friends, home, toys, where they grew up, etc. What do they love about their lives? What do they wish they could change? Student volunteers can verbally share with the class or they can each write their reflections on sticky notes (without names) and stick them to the white board for teacher to read aloud.


Allow students to reflect on how they react to to certain images that depict a variety of people in diverse situations. As an AP Human Geography teacher, I use images that show toys around the world. I follow @gabrielegalimbertiphoto on Instagram. I ask students what they see; how a specific toy is similar or different to the toys they have/had; what they believe are the socio-economic, socio-political, and historical connections to the toys they see; what would it be like to live in the family depicted in the photo?


After, students can choose one person they saw in the images and write a quick 100 word reflection about what their life would be like if the two were switched. You could use the first few minutes of the trailer “Big” to illustrate.


:


http://time.com/8515/what-the-world-eats-hungry-planet/ .

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SwcychAm--s

https://www.buzzfeed.com/mjs538/what-school-lunches-look-like-in-20-countries-arou?s=mobile






References:

Jordan, J. V. (2000). The role of mutual empathy in relational/cultural therapy. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 56(8), 1005-1016.


Jordan, J. V., Hartling, L. M., & Walker, M. (2004). The complexity of connection : Writings from the stone center's jean baker miller training institute. New York: Guilford Press.


Jordan, J. V., & Schwartz, H. L. (2018). Radical empathy in teaching. New Directions for

Teaching and Learning, 2018(153), 25-35.


Jordan, J. V., & Stone Center for Developmental Services and Studies. (1989). Relational

development : Therapeutic implications of empathy and shame. Wellesley, Mass.: Stone Center, Wellesley College.


Jordan, J. V., & Stone Center for Developmental Services and Studies. (1989). Relational

development : Therapeutic implications of empathy and shame. Wellesley, Mass.: Stone Center, Wellesley College.

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