The cultivation of empathy

The cultivation of empathy and understanding for our students and their needs is central to the tenets of individualisation, differentiation and personal growth. We know that an essential requirement for effective learning is a safe and accepting environment in which every learner has access to the respect and dignity they deserve. However, even equipped with this awareness and a desire to achieve this goal establishing a culture of empathy and understanding that embraces all students presented unique challenges. 

A simple definition of empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. In most instances this is not such a challenging task that requires little else but an ability and willingness to see things from another’s perspective. Where empathy becomes challenging is in those situations where the perspective of the ‘other’ is outside of the realm of our experience, where our understanding of things is challenged. Unfortunately this is most likely to occur for teachers when we encounter students who require empathy and understanding most.

In many cases teachers caring for a disabled person are able to provide the empathetic environment they require to thrive. A student with a physical disability, short or long term can expect a host of accommodations to ensure their learning is maximised. To a slightly lesser extent the same is true for students with a variety of sensory challenges. Empathy for those with certain types of intellectual or behavioural conditions seems to present a greater challenge and I present the following as examples.

Recently I taught a student who is High Functioning Autistic. It was a pleasure to teach him and while we could recall moments throughout the year that we would prefer to forget we also had many moments of true learning together. His autism presents genuine barriers to his ability to perceive the world in a fashion similar to his peers. Rigidity of thinking and action dominate his approach and confound many situations for him. Those who know him well understand this and are able to make suitable accommodations. The difficulty comes not from his autism but from people’s perceptions of his actions. To some he is seen as deliberately disobedient and in need of strong discipline. They see a boy who chooses to act the way he does and in this perception they fail to empathise. The rigidity of thought that he experiences and is also aware of is a barrier that only true empathy can see past and ensures only empathetic teachers are likely to establish the conditions he needs for personal growth.

Many years ago I had the privilege of teaching at a special needs school. It was the most rewarding teaching experience I have had. I recall on a number of times having members of the school’s surrounding community volunteer to spend time helping the students. These caring members of the community would offer their time in the belief that they could do some good for the ‘unfortunate’ students they saw entering the school each day. Very few came back, many left part way through the day suddenly remembering an appointment. These caring people were confronted by what they saw and were not able to cope with the realities of it. They felt so sorry for the students that they failed to empathise with them at all. Empathy was the key to meeting the needs of these students for it was empathy that allowed you to understand a little of the world they lived in. My strongest memory of my time with these students was how happy they were. I learned from them what made them happy, what routines and rituals they had that they made them smile. They engaged with the world from a different reference point and the challenges and ‘disabilities’ they experienced did not limit their ability to experience joy. Singing 'Bob the Builder' with a five year old dancing in circles with you as their may-pole or watching a young girl's face light up with absolute joy as you make her favourite colour appear from mixing paint in a sink reveal the special roles we can have as teachers. Once it was understood that the children were happy and once it was understood how this could be achieved the daily experience of working and learning became an uplifting experience as is the case for all teaching.

Truly cultivating empathy for our students is in reality a complex task, at least as complex as our students but it will always be an essential ingredient in a culture of learning. 

by Nigel Coutts

Thanks to #asiaED and @asiaEDchat for asking the question - How do we cultivate empathy and understanding for our students and their needs in school?