By Barbara Gruener
Part of our Counselor’s Corner series. Click to read other posts in the Counselor’s Corner.
Even though it has been almost 16 years since I moved from a high school—where I’d been scheduling students into classes, counting graduation credits, and writing college recommendation letters—to a fifth-and-sixth-grade campus, where I coach social skills, run small-group feelings classes, and teach character-development lessons, the move is still vivid in my mind. Around that same time, I happened on the book Hey, Little Ant by Phillip and Hannah Hoose. Today, I firmly believe that this little ANTidote made its way into my hands because I would need its powerful message over and over again in the years to come.
It’s a simple story in which a child’s threat to squish an ant on the sidewalk is thwarted by the ant’s passionate plea for its life. As the pages turn and the child tries to decide whether to squish or not to squish, the duo banters back and forth in a classic point of view masterpiece. I can still recite the page that first resonated so strongly with me: “If you were me and I were you, what would you want me to do?”
In a brilliant, last-ditch effort to save itself, the ant invites the kid to switch places with it, to make the decision using what some people refer to as a “soft skill”: empathy. It’s the ability to imagine, understand, and care about what someone else is feeling or experiencing. I like to look at it this way; empathy gives kindness its why.
Consider these three strategies for stretching empathy:
1. Model empathy for your students. Children are great imitators who are always watching us. Do we give students who come to school tardy a little extra grace and compassion because we’ve stepped into their story and can understand the why? Do we show extra kindness when a student is absent on review day and returns on test day still not feeling all that well? Do we find a way to secure a snack for that food-insecure child who’s feeling restless and out of sorts? Opportunities to work out those empathy muscles alongside our students, whose hearts are primed to take our lead, abound. Do your level best to walk the talk.
2. Seize vicarious experiences. Keep a lookout for emotions to talk about and reflect upon. Point out how people look, taking cues from facial expressions and body language. Imagine how they might be feeling, and then predict what they might need: “Jimmy looks really sad. I wonder what he needs and what we could do to help him?” This is a good place to work on active listening skills because asking Jimmy how you can help him is also a great way to find out. Utilize photographs or video clips to initiate similar discussions so students can practice this life skill.
3. Teach empathy and carve out time to work on it every day. I teach the Empathy Switch to make this abstract concept tangible for my littlest learners. Try it: “Put the pinky up on your right hand to represent yourself and the thumb up on your left hand to represent me. Now, switch places on your hands at the same time. The pinky up (you) on the right hand becomes a thumb up (me) and vice versa. Then switch again. And again.” Be prepared for cries of, “This is hard.” Validate that just like showing empathy, it can be very difficult at first, but it’s worth the effort. Assure students that it will get easier with practice. Once they have mastered it fluidly, recite this little poem as the pinky and thumb switch: It’s empathy, it’s empathy. When you put yourself in place of me, that’s empathy.
Research suggests that reading fiction will also help grow empathy. Check out these go-to books in my empathy arsenal.
For your elementary-age readers:
• Those Shoes by Meribeth Boelts
• Stand in My Shoes by Bob Sornson, Ph.D.
• Tilt Your Head, Rosie the Red by Rosemary McCarney
• Each Kindness by Jacqueline Woodson
• One Voice by Cindy McKinley
• The Invisible Boy by Trudy Ludwig
For your intermediate-age readers:
• One Thousand Tracings: Healing the Wounds of World War II by Lita Judge
• The Orange Shoes by Trinka Hakes Noble
• Four Feet, Two Sandals by Karen Lynn Williams
• The Sandal Artist by Kathleen T. Pelley
• Gifts from the Enemy by Trudy Ludwig
• Bird Child by Nan Forler
Chapter books for your older readers:
• Wonder by R.J. Palacio
• El Deafo by Cece Bell
• Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli
• Maniac Magee by Jerry Spinelli
Stop periodically while you’re reading aloud for empathy-rich reflections like: “How is this character feeling? What does he want? What does she need? How can you tell? What could you do to help? Then switch places with him or her. What would you do next?” Have students write a prequel or the sequel. Or, challenge students to alter the script somewhere in the middle or toward the end: “How might you change what happens in the story? How might your actions be the same? What would you do differently?” Let students share their reasons without judgments or parameters and watch their empathy barometers rise.
All of these suggestions will help stretch empathy, but empathy by itself doesn’t do much good. According to parenting expert Dr. Michele Borba, “Empathy alone can be limiting. We’ve got to make sure that empathy is activated so our children don’t just feel it but want to do it for someone else, to comfort, to support, to help.” So what is the next step for kids who have begun to stretch empathy?
It’s time to give their empathy wings by working on perspective-taking, which leads to compassion. My new favorite point of view books are those in Erin Frankel’s and Paula Heaphy’s Weird series. Together, these three books tell the story of a triangle friendship as seen from and played out through each girl’s vantage point. All caught up in the same friendship situation, Luisa, Jayla, and Sam each experience the story quite differently. As the first-person narratives unfold, the reader is invited to step into each of the girls’ shoes, walk around for a bit, and feel how each character feels. Ask your students which character they most connect with personally and why. “Is one more likeable than the other two? Which, if any, isn’t likeable? How does knowing each of their stories change how we see them and how we feel about them?” Use perspective-taking activities and books like these routinely to help make compassion—thinking with our hearts—a habit.
Together, empathy and compassion fuel kindness. Encourage students to use these values as a lens through which to research their next service project. Who needs help, and what can your empathy heroes do to positively impact and influence their experience? Take a step back and let them lead. Then, watch in wonder at the places their empathy energy will take them.
Currently in her 32nd year as an educator, Barbara Gruener, a school counselor and character coach at Bales Intermediate school in Friendswood, Texas, has had the pleasure of working with kids from every grade level. Author of the blog The Corner on Character and the book What’s Under Your Cape? SUPERHEROES of the Character Kind, Barbara enjoys positively influencing change through her inspirational keynotes and interactive workshops. When she’s not working, you can bet Barbara is knitting, baking, writing, reading, walking, gardening, napping, or spending time with her husband and their three children.
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Roots of Empathy
Sesame Street Clip Explaining Empathy
Dr. Michele Borba on Empathy
Hey, Little Ant by Phillip M. Hoose, and Hannah Hoose, illustrated by Debbie Tilley (page 20 quoted with permission from author Phil Hoose)
Weird series by Erin Frankel, illustrated by Paula Heaphy