Empathy and Compassion part II: Education

Empathy — the ability to understand how someone else feels — can be taught, and in Compassionate Communication we learn to empathize by listening for feelings and needs. Programs and initiatives across the US are teaching young people how to listen empathically to truly embrace diversity, end violence, and generate compassionate actions.

Can empathy be taught? While some people are naturally more empathic than others, “empathy requires something called Theory of Mind,” Dr. Laura Mattox says, which “is a concept that develops in children ages 3 to 5 and entails being able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes.” [1]

Developing techniques for teaching empathy has been going on for years. For example, in 1996 Mary Gordon pioneered the Roots of Empathy program, which brings babies into classrooms, using Social and Emotional Learning [SEL] to teach children compassion with the intention to break cycles of intergenerational violence. And within the Compassionate Communication community, programs like Catherine Cadden’s Play in the Wild have used experiential pedagogies like L.O.V.E. [Listening, Observing, Validating, and Empathizing] to instill self-awareness, self-empathy, and other-empathy in young people.

“In terms of where we are culturally and as a changing world, empathy is more essential today than it has been in any point in history,” — Lennon Flowers

Currently, the Changing Worlds program is a literacy and arts program which teaches empathy – and recently won a competition by the Ashoka Foundation for its work. Ashoka itself is supporting a number of initiatives focused on teaching kids empathy skills. “In terms of where we are culturally and as a changing world, empathy is more essential today than it has been in any point in history,” says Lennon Flowers, a Change Manager at Ashoka in charge of their Start Empathy initiative.[2]
Start Empathy offers those who work with youth resources as well as research on the power of teaching kids empathy: whether it is through games, pedagogical practices, arts, or relationship-building interactions, and has the mission of creating “a world where every child masters empathy.” [3]

Both these projects center empathy as a route to growing the instances of compassion in our world. The “Charter for Compassion is a call to listen, understand, and treating all others as we wish to be treated ourselves.” Organizers of the Charter state that “the drive to bring compassion to schools has increased fastest, and a number of programs were started not by adults, but by the children themselves — including in Amman, Jordan and Basalt, Colorado.” [4]

Where can educators go from here? The Center for Nonviolent Communication has a long list of resources, compiled by Sura Hart, here.  Start Empathy’s resources page [http://startempathy.org/how/tips], also has how-to articles for incorporating empathy into your teaching. If you prefer to learn in-person, coming up in London this November is a Empathy and Compassion in Society Conference, directed at educators specifically. CCC since our founding has frequently offered NVC training at primary schools, high schools, third level institutions. If you’re interested in bringing NVC training to your school or university, let us know!

Empathy education is not limited to only young people – we all can expand our empathic and compassionate abilities. CCC teaches skills for real-life use and empathy-based interactions. Try one of the upcoming intro classes or jump in to our Level 1 class, which starts Sept 27.

Creating a world where valuing others as well as ourselves for and because of our differences is not only inspirational – it is needed in order to work out conflict and create a sustainable future.


[1] http://www.tulsakids.com/August-2012/Ways-to-Nurture-Compassion-in-Children/

[2] http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/educating_for_empathy

[3] http://startempathy.org

[4] http://www.parentmap.com/article/compassion-changing-the-world-through-empathy-and-education

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