Teaching Empathy: The ancient way is now cutting edge

We hear all the time about learning for the 21st century and the need for U.S. schools to prepare our students to effectively compete internationally. Science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) predominate the conversation and yet there is often one critical area of development that is missing from the vision: teaching children how to build creative, intuitive, trusting and collaborative relationships with others.

Many people became aware of how emotional intelligence plays a role in a person’s success, both socially and professionally, with the publication of Dr. Daniel Goleman’s landmark book, “Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ,” in 1995. Since then, organizations like CASEL (co-founded by Dr. Goleman and Timothy Shriver) and the Developmental Studies Center (founded by Dr. Eric Shaps) have conducted research on social and emotional learning programs and the positive effects these programs have on student achievement. The Novo Foundation, the 1440 Foundation, and the Einhorn Family Charitable Trust have invested in evidence-based social and emotional learning programs that promote, among other things, pro-social skills development, empathy-consciousness within schools, equity-based opportunities for disenfranchised youth, and self-regulation and mindfulness practices.

SEA BRIGHT, NJ - NOVEMBER 06:  Water workers s...

Water workers in Sea Bright, New Jersey, survey a residence damaged by Superstorm Sandy. (Image credit: Getty Images via @daylife)

The efforts of these organizations and many other like-minded groups are part of a national movement that would make social and emotional learning a free-standing, required learning standard for grades pre-k through 12. While the movement is changing the way many educators, parents and policymakers think about schools, it’s not moving fast enough. Maybe I’m impatient.

In November, 2012, three weeks after Superstorm Sandy ravaged the Northeast seaboard, I visited my childhood home near Sea Bright, New Jersey, where my parents still live. As I drove north on Ocean Avenue I was deeply touched by what I saw; I saw people working together, cleaning up, and beginning the process of rebuilding the community they love. It is in such times of extreme need when each person’s natural inclination toward empathy and compassion surfaces.

I wonder what would the world be like if we acted with this level of decency, tenderness and caring every day in all of our interactions?

We can teach this way of being in our schools by living this way. I believe that if all schools (instead of a select few) put as much emphasis and exploration in teaching social and emotional competencies as they do on math, science and literacy, in 10 years, the workforce would be more productive, talented and happier, helping our nation and the rest of the world at the same time. In the words of emotional intelligence author and practitioner Robert K. Cooper: “These skills are ‘common sense but not common practice.’ ”

The current reality is that most schools are evaluated and funded based on reaching state standards and test scores. Human relationship skill building is often seen as an “add-on,” or something that can’t be taught, but these skills can be refined through conversation, modeling and recognition. Social and emotional learning is implemented best when it is a part of a consciousness movement—one that creates a balanced, challenging, and ultimately life-changing learning community.

In my work as a systems change specialist in schools and other learning communities, here are the practices I encourage instructional leaders to promote:

  1. Teach listening as a core skill and expect it as a cultural practice. Start by being an active listener yourself and give people the time they need to reflect. Time not made for someone is time wasted.
  2. Make dialogue a primary team, group or classroom practice. Dialogue opens the doors to exploration—what Peter Senge in his guide “The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook” calls “skillful discussion,” where thoughtful decisions can be made that honor all participants (or, in business, stakeholders).
  3. Identify roles, not organizational charts. When people are able to articulate their role, what they need to be successful and what gets in the way of their success, an empathic understanding is present and the beginnings of a healthy team, class or group takes shape.
  4. Lead with consistency, authenticity and honesty. Be clear as to why you are doing what you are doing. Do not lead or manage through personality but rather through articulation. To articulate is to clarify.

Let’s make it common practice to return to the ancient way when people survived and excelled because they knew that survival was based on working together, overcoming conflicts, and helping their neighbors through difficult times.

We need to create an authentic curriculum—a curriculum of human touch. Our children deserve it, and the world definitely needs it.

This post originally appeared in Forbes.com. April, 2013.

Empathy as a consciousness movement

A Word Appeared

In early December of 1989, while working as a “visiting teacher” for schools throughout the Northeastern United States, I had an unusual experience with a group of 5th grade students. It was a snowy morning in Portland, Maine, and I was teaching a lesson I called “Real life Conversations” in The Longfellow Elementary School, for the Portland City School District. At one point, I asked the students why others in school were often treated unfairly, and as I turned to the blackboard poised to record their answers, an image of a blank picture frame appeared on the board. Looking closely inside the frame, a word was showing itself to me; capitalized in bold letters I saw…


I drew a blank frame and wrote the word EMPATHY on the inside exactly as I was “seeing” it. I stood there quietly for a moment and then said “Please silently read the word I have written inside the empty frame.” After a few moments of silence, I had a student read the word aloud for the class and then I continued… “Empathy is being able to see inside someone else’s “picture”, understanding what they are going through and making caring choices based on what you see.” Prior to that moment, I had never contemplated teaching the word empathy to a group of students and I had no idea where this vision and its corresponding reflections were coming from.

Since that day, empathy has become my touchstone in everything I do. I have created lessons, given talks, conducted workshops, and been interviewed numerous times on the subject of empathy. Often, when working with others on this topic, it feels as if on that early winter’s day in 1989, in that small elementary school built in the 1930’s, I was given a glimpse into my life’s work: to teach how empathy in practice brings to life one of life’s greatest lessons: To treat others the way you would like to be treated.

In 2005, I wrote a book for schools called Teaching Empathy. Although I targeted the book primarily for teachers, since its release, many non-educators who have expressed their fascination that empathy can be learned and practiced as a way of living, have contacted me. I’ve had numerous spirited conversations on empathy, often charged with emotion and wonder. I have come away from these experiences with the perception that all people need to be conscious of how to manifest empathy in their own lives. It’s a paradox really, because although empathy seems to be about awareness for others, it’s really about having empathy for yourself, finding what brings you joy and meaning in your life, believing that you are here to express your uniqueness to the world, and opening up to what that expression might be.

In my work as a teacher, I have focused exclusively upon both children and the adults who work with them as part of my process, as part of my life’s work. And now, as I open up to expanding this work outside of the school community, I offer this blog to you as an expression of what I have learned. It is my hope that by focusing on the heartfelt practice of empathy, you will experience how joyful life can be each day within each moment. It really is an ancient concept, that we need each other if we are to survive. Technology in spite of all its magic, instant communication and informational capability, cannot provide the most basic emotional need; real-life human connection. Perhaps this is why there is an increasing number of people who feel cut off or dismembered from the human experience. Empathy is a journey of remembering to the human heart. It is a core heart skill and cutting edge practice for reconnection and self-discovery.

In this blog, I will tell you the story of my heart’s journey as an educator and parent and how along the way, I have come to realize that for schools, empathy is a necessary consciousness that is so often forgotten. In the many moments of bumping up against others, it is far too easy to label, judge, blame and dismiss. For some this is sport, for others it is habit, and for others it is a knee jerk reaction to someone who they see as getting in their way of success and happiness.