Teaching Empathy: From Me to We

Educator Dr. Jennie Warmouth wrote this post.

The global pandemic and subsequent shifts in teaching modalities have illuminated the importance of social and emotional learning (SEL) as an integral part of education and human development. According to the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), SEL involves five core competencies that can be applied in the classroom, at home, and within children’s communities. These five competencies are: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making. The development of empathy is a central SEL outcome, which may prompt some to ask, “What is empathy and how can it be taught?”

Empathy can be understood as the ability to perceive, understand, and vicariously share in the thoughts, feelings and experiences of another living being. It comprises the cognitive process of identifying another’s emotional state and the affective process of experiencing similar sensations within oneself. Empathy differs from sympathy when the perspective-taker responds by feeling with another’s perceived emotional state. Empathic concern can motivate compassionate action (e.g., helping another in distress).

Empathy follows sympathy and precedes compassion in this chart showing a spectrum of feeling. (Jennie Warmouth)

Empathy is a complex and powerful emotional response that drives connection. Human babies begin life by experiencing all emotions as shared. This is best illustrated by the phenomenon of newborns crying in response to the sound of another infant’s cry. Toddlers develop a self-concept around the age of two years before beginning to recognize similarities and differences between themselves and others; kids in middle to late childhood develop the ability to extend connections across individuals, groups, physical distance, and time.

The great news is that empathy can be developed, strengthened, and reinforced throughout our lives. It is an important driver of prosocial behaviors and can also motivate people to take caring action on behalf of animals and nature. With an estimated 70 percent of American households having pets, I am particularly interested in the role that nonhuman animals can play in children’s development of empathy. For many children, relationships with companion animals provide invaluable first lessons in responsibility, respect, nonverbal communication, and nurturance toward another living being. This commonly shared childhood experience provides an ideal point of entry for school-based instruction designed to promote empathy and prosocial behaviors.

A therapy dog visits Jennie’s class. (Jennie Warmouth)

One way that I have successfully leveraged my students’ ubiquitous interest in companion animals is through an empathy-focused reading and writing curriculum that I developed in 2004. After forging a community partnership with our local animal shelter, I began to teach my second-grade students how to apply their emerging literacy skills to writing online adoption advertisements for “difficult to place” dogs and cats awaiting new families. Through this partnership, now in its 17th consecutive year of implementation, I teach my students how to process the shelter’s veterinary records, analyze behavioral assessments and video footage, and summarize complex ecological information in order to craft honest, entertaining, and hopeful descriptions for these pets. Their final drafts are published on the shelter’s website each week.

For most of my students, this is a first opportunity to improve the life condition of another being. Approximately 800 children have participated in the United States and United Kingdom and nearly 1,000 “difficult to place” and/or special needs dogs and cats have been successfully rehomed as a result. Graduates of my program return year after year, volunteering to mentor the next generation of “PAWS Writers.” Student participants have shown significantly higher outcomes on empathy measures versus same-aged peers who did not participate in the animal writing program. Additionally, some of my writers have forgone birthday gifts and chosen instead to collect pet food and supplies to donate to the animal shelter. Others have even demonstrated the knowledge and courage to report incidents of both human and animal maltreatment they have observed within their communities.

Jennie’s students participate in a shelter visit. (Jennie Warmouth)

The transformative effect of this work on my students’ social and emotional development inspired me to pursue a PhD in Human Development and Cognition with a focus on the psychology of human-animal interaction and empathy development (University of Washington, 2017). As detailed in my dissertation, child participants struggling with sensitive issues sometimes considered “unspeakable” in public education classrooms bravely shared their lived experiences and perspectives through the empathy-infused collaborative writing process. Empowered by empathy, they were able to process and transform some aspects of their own trauma as they simultaneously assisted in another being’s healing.

My recommendation to elementary school teachers interested in enhancing their students’ empathic capacities is to begin with a deep and meaningful study of “self.” Explicitly teach your students how to identify and name their own emotions and associated sensations. Support your students as they begin to consider the cognitive, affective, and perceptual perspectives of their peers within your classroom. With time, widen the lens to consider multiple points of view across local, regional, and global scales. Finally, expand to include a multispecies perspective centering on the biocentric notion that we are not the only life form that thinks and feels. Meet your students where they are and support their actionable steps toward compassionate action. In doing so, your students will grow in their empathy for and connection with people, animals, and the environmental systems through which we are all interconnected. Best practices for developing empathy for wildlife have been identified through the Measuring Empathy Collaborative Assessment Project (MECAP).

They are as follows:

  • Framing: Be intentional with language and highlight the interactions and interconnections between animals, people, and the environment.
  • Modeling: Modeling positive, empathic behavior provides an example for children to learn how to build and communicate empathic skills.
  • Increasing knowledge: With an increase in knowledge, children can more accurately perceive the emotions, intentions, and perspectives of others, be they people or animals. 
  • Providing experiences: Interactions between children, animals, and the environment provide opportunities to develop connections.
  • Practice: Empathy development requires authentic practice and positive feedback.
  • Activating imagination: Activating imagination helps children better understand the perspectives of others. This involves cognitive empathy because it requires active empathic reasoning. Common perspective-taking practices include: perspective-taking dialogue, storytelling, role-playing, and mimicry.

Dr. Jennie Warmouth is an elementary school teacher, adjunct professor of literacy, and children’s book author, with a PhD in Educational Psychology: Human Development and Cognition. Jennie’s research focuses on how children learn empathy and explores the ways in which interactions with companion animals may affect children’s development.

Featured image: Jennie poses in front of the Seattle skyline with her rescue puppy, whom she adopted from a local animal shelter earlier in the COVID-19 pandemic. (Jennie Warmouth)

4 thoughts on “Teaching Empathy: From Me to We

  1. Jennie, I like the spectrum of feelings, I am not sure if this is something you came up with (if yes, then good for you) or if it belongs to some well known psychologist, but it is really right to the point! I never thought of explaining all this array of feelings this way, but after I read your blog article I just slapped my forehead like this was it, this is how you explain to children these feelings/emotions. Thank you.

  2. We often hear the phrase” live today as if it was your last day”. Maybe treat others as if is their last day.

  3. There are frequent discussions surrounding “empathy”. In our current too often uncivil culture, empathy will not be achieved if we do not also model and include respecting other’s opinions and values. The frequent “if you don’t believe what I believe” rejection is widening the gap making it extremely difficult to achieve empathy. Appreciate sharing your work with animals/pets as a means to reach our children.

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