Can We Help Children Learn Compassion?

By Kayla McCarnes and Nancy W. Sager

In the midst of the rigor of a twenty-first century curriculum, can we squeeze in a few lessons on empathy and compassion? “Touchy-Feely” activities seem like an unwise use of time as we plow through multiplication algorithms, written language activities, and scientific investigations. Yet, we want all of our students to score “well above average” on state standards AND be able to play well with others.

Taking into consideration the time constraints on all educators, there are some strategies that can be embedded into daily lesson plans and the overall school environment. Helping children to care is a foundational piece for success in school and in life.

The capacity for empathy and caring behavior comes early and comes young. As author and beloved kindergarten teacher at the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools Vivian Gussin Paley once said, “Children are always on the edge of committing an act of kindness.”

As they grow older, however, this natural tendency for kindness is gradually eroded as children are desensitized by certain cartoons and movies that tend to show that hurting someone is a humorous or legitimate way to gain power.

We can counter these messages by providing students with a safe, respectful, inclusive environment where teachers can teach and students can learn.

Five Strategies to Promote Compassion and Caring in Students

  1. Create a Caring School Climate: Provide students with a physically and psychologically safe, caring environment. You then have numerous opportunities to make a difference daily—while maintaining your standards for discipline and classroom management. The more secure a student feels, the more potential there is to show kindness.
  1. Provide Opportunities That Highlight Others’ Feelings: When teaching students to consider consequences for their actions, we typically identify the various corrective consequences they could receive, both at school and at home.  What we fail to include is the effect on others’ feelings. An example of  a  new response may be: “If you choose to exclude him to make the teams even, how would that make him feel?”

When having a student apologize or when having two students carry out conflict resolution, have them each tell how the action impacted them by using “I” messages. When using “Restorative Justice” approaches, make sure that the impacted child expresses emotions of how he/she was affected.  A pro-social consequence may include having the aggressor walk the injured student to the office, hold the ice pack, etc.—with adult support to ensure the child who was hurt is not re-victimized.

  1. 3.     Create Connections: Create a school and classroom environment that promotes multiple layers of connection. The more a student feels secure, the more fulfilled the student feels, and he/she is then more apt to be kind to others. As an administrator, make every effort to greet students by name.
  2. Use Teachable Moments to Enrich Your Students’ “Feelings Vocabulary”: Use teaching opportunities to add to your students’  “Emotional”  or  “Feelings” vocabulary. Whether you are discussing current events or characters in literature, teach new words that are used less frequently in everyday conversation.  By doing this, words such as distress, uneasy, contemptuous, alarmed, and humiliated can enhance your students’ repertoire of word knowledge and increase their range of feelings … in a context that illustrates the feeling.
  1. Model Kind and Caring Behavior: Lead by example! This is your most powerful tool to make an impact daily with your students. Show with your actions and your words that you respect each and every student and adult you encounter.

Sometimes the easiest interventions can make the most dynamic changes. You can start small; individuals in the classroom can help lead the way. Cultivating compassion and promoting kindness, inclusion, and respectful behavior can become “contagious” and spread throughout the school and community at large.

Kayla McCarnes, MSW, PhD, has worked in the field of school mental health as a school social worker and school psychologist for 33 years. She has co-authored a book, written articles, presented at conferences, and has worked with the staff, parents, and students of schools on creating a caring community, anti-bullying, and managing behavior interventions.

Nancy Sager, M.A., is an educational and behavioral consultant with the Cherry Creek School District in Colorado. She has worked with children who have special needs for more than 30 years. She is a coauthor of the Bully-Proofing Series.

About Nancy Sager

Books by Nancy Sager

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