Is Empathy the Key?

Like many other people around the globe, I have been affected by the death of George Floyd. The way in which his life ended was deeply disturbing to me on several levels. Firstly, the capacity of one human being to do that to another. How does one convince oneself that that is ok to do that to another human being? Secondly, the ability of others to stand by and watch something so horrific happening in front of you and not do anything about it, and finally, what can we do to stop this happening again? Is Empathy the key?

It was encouraging to see the global reaction of people of all races and communities uniting, to say with one voice, this is not good enough and we will no longer accept it. It is a message of hope. That we still care for each other enough to stand up for those who are suffering and really do something about it and that we can turn this around and make lasting changes to the way we view and treat our fellow man.

What we witnessed in the global response was a willingness to stand in another’s shoes, look through their eyes and offer our support.

This is Empathy.

It is the first step towards meaningful change.

Over my many years teaching I witnessed the powerful effect of empathy on human relationships. There are two incidents that stand out.

The first one was in a senior primary grade where one child had, without warning vomited all over his desk, his books and himself. It caused mayhem as children scattered and reacted to the event. This sort of thing is par for the course in a teacher’s life and very quickly you swing into action to attend to the child, settle the class and organise a clean-up. No biggie.

What disturbed me more than the disruption were the reactions of many of his classmates. Some giggled nervously, some made horrified faces and noises, some moaned that they had to get away as they were going to be sick and others complained about the smell. Just a few offered to help. Where was their empathy? These were not nasty children. This class was, overall, well behaved and co-operative. The reaction truly shocked me.

After all, had settled down. We had a conversation about the reactions I had witnessed and how I felt that concern for the child who was unwell was lacking. I asked the class to put themselves in their classmate’s shoes. Feeling sick, trying not to be sick, then finally throwing up, in front of everyone. How would they be feeling? What sort of support would they like if it were them? What sort of support did they offer?

The purpose of the discussion was not to have them feeling guilty but to see the event from the sufferer’s perspective. And to realise that sometimes you need to put yourself second.

We then looked at how the child might be feeling as he faced the prospect of coming back to school and how we could support him. It was left to each child to work out their own response.

I am happy to report that the return to class for that child was smooth and supportive. Hopefully, it is a lesson that will stay with those children for the rest of their lives.

The second incident involved a group of boys who had been struggling to get along since beginning school. By this stage they were in middle primary school and one of the boys was struggling to cope with the situation and was finding it increasingly difficult to be at school. The boys agreed to come together to try to work things out (this can be a very delicates process and needs to be done carefully and with great sensitivity and only with the consent of all parties).

The process involved listening each other’s stories and hearing about how the same incident affected all parties involved.

This process profoundly affected one of the main perpetrators who changed his attitude and behaviour toward the child who was suffering, permanently, from that day forward. It was also a great opportunity for the ‘victim’ (for want of a better word) to see how his actions were perceived by the others and gave him a little more insight to events. Both parties benefitted enormously from viewing the same situation through someone else’s eyes.

The result was an agreement to get along. The groups were never going to be best friends going forward but agreed, that, for the sake of everyone in the class, they needed to get along, and they did. It was a lasting change.

Over the years, I found that when children were encouraged to:

· recognise and accept similarities and differences,

· view a situation from another’s perspective

· value kindness and understanding

· respect each individual as a person who has feelings and emotions just like them

the results were beneficial to all and longer lasting than the traditional crime and punishment model.

This is Empathy.

The Verywell Mind article “What is Empathy?” suggests that:

  • Empathy allows people to build social connections with others. By understanding what people are thinking and feeling, people can respond appropriately in social situations.

  • Research has shown that having social connections is important for both physical and psychological well-being.

  • Empathizing with others helps you learn to regulate your own emotions. Emotional regulation is important in that it allows you to manage what you are feeling, even in times of great stress, without becoming overwhelmed.

  • Empathy promotes helping behaviours. Not only are you more likely to engage in helpful behaviours when you feel empathy for other people, but other people are also more likely to help you when they experience empathy.

How much better would the world be if we raised children with these skills early on?

American astrophysicist, Neil deGrasse Tyson, is quoted as saying that since “humans aren’t as good as we should be in our capacity to empathize with feelings and thoughts of others . . . maybe part of our formal education should be training in empathy. Imagine how different the world would be if, in fact, [we learned] ‘reading, writing, arithmetic, empathy.’”

I totally agree.

Empathy is a skill that can be learned and, I believe, one that should be explicitly taught.

Parents, teachers, and caring adults can all teach empathy.

As soon as children are old enough to understand their own feelings and emotions and the fact that they can affect others by their actions, they are old enough to learn about empathy.

I believe that as well as repairing damage caused by our treatment of our fellow man, we should be looking at ways of preventing the damage in the first place.

Teaching our children about empathy from a young age, might be just one way to change the world.

“It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken adults.”

If you are interested in reading more about Empathy or would like some useful resources for how to teach Empathy, head over to the resources page on my website:


Let us keep building strong children.


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