Blog: Cultivating header

9 Strategies for Cultivating Empathy and Compassion in Your Classroom

by Marsha Rakestraw

To create a just, compassionate, sustainable world for all – and to help our students become solutionaries — it’s vital that we help them (and ourselves) build empathy and compassion for people, animals, and the earth.

We humans are wired to care about those with whom we have close relationships (our family, our friends, companion animals, our tribes), and to extend our empathy and concern to those things (or beings) with whom we’ve connected.

With nearly eight billion humans and countless other beings from countless nonhuman species on the earth, it can be a challenge to extend our compassion to others outside our primary circle of concern, especially when we have trauma or obstacles of our own to grapple with.

Here’s a great article that summarizes research about expanding our moral circles of concern.

How are we defining empathy and compassion?

Empathy is when you’re able to understand and care about how someone else is feeling. Brené Brown explores the importance of empathy and its ability to make connections. (2:53 min)

Compassion is “an awareness of another’s suffering and a willingness to help address it.” Compassion is empathy in action.

And compassion and empathy can (and must) be nurtured and taught.

As Scotty McLennan, Dean for Religious Life at Stanford University notes, “Expressing care for another is not an innate ability present more naturally in some people than others, but rather a skill that can be taught and nurtured through a supportive educational environment.”

What would our world look like if training in empathy and compassion were a fundamental part of our education?

There are several strategies we can use to cultivate empathy and compassion in ourselves and others. Here are 9 that are key:

1. Strive to model compassion for other beings and the earth and embed it into your classroom and curriculum.
Children pay attention to how we adults behave (especially when our actions and values aren’t aligned). Modeling compassion in the classroom, our lives, and our relationships with others is a vital part of being a solutionary educator. There are numerous opportunities to model compassion and love in what and how we teach, what we put on the classroom walls, what we wear and eat and say, and more.

2. Help students learn to understand and regulate their own emotions.
Studies show that self-awareness about our own emotions is linked to increased empathy for others. And learning to regulate our emotions helps us make choices more aligned with our deepest values, rather than from a reactive place based on whatever we’re feeling in the moment. We may not be able to control how we feel, but we can learn to act and communicate with compassion and intention.

3. Practice self-care.
We become solutionary educators because we’re passionate about creating a just, compassionate world for all beings.

In our work we can often encounter stories of cruelty and injustice related to global ethical issues, and in the challenges our students face. Burnout, compassion fatigue, overwork, and stress are all possible consequences of our work for a better world.

That’s why practicing self-care is so important.

As Eleanor Brownn says, “Self-care is not selfish. You cannot serve from an empty vessel.”

4. Cultivate a sense of wonder, awe, and appreciation.
We tend to protect who and what we love. If we want children to connect deeply with others in the world, we need to provide them with regular experiences that nurture and celebrate their love and compassion for animals, humans, and the earth. We can engage our students’ innate curiosity and invite them to observe ants, get to know a tree, learn about the other beings around them, and explore the beauty and uniqueness that are part of their world.

5. Explore and practice “broader kindness” as ethical global citizens.
There are a lot of ways to be kind. Most of the time in our schools and communities we focus on interpersonal acts of kindness. And those are important.

We also need to bring awareness to our vital role as ethical global citizens who are cognizant of the impacts of our choices on people, animals, and the planet, and who practice a broader kind of kindness and compassion with the choices we make and actions we take.

6. Help students put on others’ shoes to get to know them.

Most of us are familiar with the adage to put ourselves in another’s shoes.

Being able to understand (or at least imagine) how others feel and how they experience the world is an important part of developing our empathy and compassion for others (and reducing the sense of “otherness” for those whom we don’t know).

Putting ourselves in another’s place also helps us understand that everyone has a different worldview (including nonhuman beings), and that it’s a necessary part of being a solutionary (and solutionary educator) to be able to see and understand others’ worldviews.

7. Challenge your own worldview.
We humans have a long history of intolerance for those who think and act differently – those who have a worldview different from our own.

We also tend not to notice that there is such a thing as a worldview (we assume our reality is THE reality), and that it is varying and changeable.

And, we tend to assume that we understand someone, based on our superficial grasp of their beliefs, desires, or behaviors, without diving deeper to really understand what motivates them and how much common ground we might share.

Challenging our own worldviews (and helping our students do the same) can help us extend our compassion and empathy to others.

8. Share the stories of others.
Stories are a wonderful tool for building empathy and compassion, and of course, regular reading and storytelling build important communication and literacy skills. Consider the values and messages in the stories you share with your students (including your own experiences with cultivating your compassion), and look for stories (in print, via video, and in person) that encourage compassion for animals, other people, and the earth.

9. Provide opportunities for practice and compassionate action.
Students love being part of the solution.

And learning how to live and communicate with compassion and how to take compassionate action require practice, skill, and opportunity. Give yourself and your students time and space to practice their compassion and to take compassionate action.

Want to help your students become solutionaries?

Register for our Solutionary Program Online Course and check out our online Resource Center.

Be sure to forward this to at least ONE person who would benefit from these resources.