Over the last two years, children have experienced significant social isolation. Many students spent much or all of the last two school years at home or participating in social distancing measures that, while aimed to prioritize health and safety, disrupted typical social interactions. This isolation has kept many children from being able to practice a lot of basic social skills that are often done naturally in the classroom. This has led to some students experiencing delays in their social development. Empathy, for example, requires social interaction. Children must learn that different people have different experiences from them, and that their actions can impact others.

As school starts this year, it is the perfect opportunity to start building back these critical skills. Teachers often assume that children have a certain set of skills as they enter the classroom at the start of the year. While that may have been true in the past, this year, starting the year without that assumption is important. Truly, it is hard to know exactly what the experience of Covid was for each child. Teachers will do well to recognize that all children may not have had these skills, which allows them to see this as 1) an opportunity to rebuild these skills, and 2) an opportunity for children to practice them.

To re-build these skills, a teacher must explicitly teach empathy to students. This should be done pre-emptively, not just in response to an incident. (A child who has just hurt another child will not be the most receptive audience.) To explicitly teach empathy, start by focusing on the child before asking him/her to think about others. Children, especially young children, are naturally self-focused and will have an easier time reflecting on how they feel than thinking about someone else.

Examples of prompts a teacher could use to teach empathy include:

I wonder what it would be like if you experienced this...

What would you want someone to say to you/do if…

How do you think ____ might be feeling?

I wonder what _____ might need or want right now?

Another way to explicitly teach empathy is through bibliotherapy, or reading books. There are a variety of books specifically about empathy, but any book with two characters working through a conflict will work. Again, start with the child first before asking him or her to think of others. Questions for reading reflection are similar to those above, such as:

How would you feel if that happened to you? (Ask about different characters, such as, “How would you feel if you were Goldilocks? How would you feel if you were Little Bear? How would you feel if you were Mama Bear?)

What would help you if you were feeling…?

How do you think ____ was feeling?

What do you think someone could do to help _____?

After teaching empathy skills, teachers can ensure opportunities to practice these skills. The good news is that there will be plenty of opportunities to practice, as conflict and conflict resolution happen often in a classroom. Teachers who provide plenty of opportunities for small groups and peer interactions will see conflicts rise up. They’ll also happen on the playground, in the cafeteria and throughout the school day. While of course monitoring the situation for safety and escalation, teachers can stay to the side of conflicts and allow students to practice how to resolve them. Whether or not they are able to do it successfully without intervention, the teacher can have a reflective conversation afterwards, asking questions such as:

How did you feel during that moment?

How do you think ____ felt?

What did you need?

What do you think _____ needed?

Remember that immediately following an incident, a child will not be able to be self-reflective. Children first need to regulate and return to a state of calm before they can engage in a higher-level conversation. In the moment, they’ll only be able to see the hurt or injustice (real or perceived) that was done to them. It may take some time before they’re able to reflect or practice empathy, but the more practice they get, the more ready they’ll be to do it the next time

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