NewsTeaching Resources

Empathy, the sequel: a path to self responsibility

Such has been the response from last week’s article on encouraging empathy through affective language that Real Schools thought it appropriate to follow up with a sequel that takes the topic a little further. They clearly hit a nerve or, in the least, a serious concern about the moral development of our student cohort.

In understanding empathy at a deeper level, it’s important to begin from an agreed definition. Many of us will have heard about empathy as explained through the metaphor of walking in another’s shoes. It’s actually very apt. But the emphasis we take is often on the wearing of shoes, whereas true understanding of empathy is about emphasising the word ‘another’s’.

You see, empathy is about the other person – it’s not about you. Expressions like ‘I know exactly how you feel. This happened to me when I was at school’ are fraught with danger for parents and teachers. Firstly, this statement is untrue. You DON’T know what it’s like for them. You know only what it was like for you with your entirely different set of experiences, beliefs, social structures and capacities. This is where empathy spills over into becoming sympathy.

Sympathy is about us/me, not about them. Traditionally expressed at times where a loved one passed away, most acts of sympathy actually do very little for the people in pain. Take the act of sending flowers. How many of you can remember huddling in the family home with extended family at the time of the passing of a dearly beloved family member? Can you also remember, amidst the awful feeling of grief, thinking ‘Geez, I wish I had some flowers, then I’d feel so much better’? Of course not, yet the flowers arrived by the vanload. You see, the flowers were not for you they were for Max and Beryl, who despite being lovely people, wanted to feel that THEY had done something and so they adhered to a time-worn custom. It’s nice, but it doesn’t fix anything.

A tendency towards acts of sympathy is robbing our young people of the opportunities to learn empathic traits, respect, resilience and responsibility. In a school, sympathy doesn’t present as flowers but as fake apologies, empty promises and false platitudes. Enough of that.

Assisting our young people to be more empathic is about asking the right type and number of questions to make them think … even if it means pondering some uncomfortable or inconvenient truths about the impact of their actions.

Of course, we hope that, once questioned, we’ll hear deep insights into their understanding around the ramifications of their poor behaviour choices … and then we’re horribly disappointed. A lack of emotional intelligence and vocabulary leads many of our children to think that smashing another over the head with a cricket bat or screaming and obscene threat at a teacher can result in only somebody feeling “sad”. I don’t think so. Yet I’m amazed at how many high school students still default to the most basic of behavioural descriptors.

Establishing an extensive emotional vocabulary is critical in our task to establish within our students the ability to empathise.

Their vocab must consist of a sophisticated understanding that beneath ‘sad’ are words like annoyed, upset, frightened, infuriated, embarrassed, despondent and disappointed. Equally, beneath ‘happiness’, there is delighted, proud and impressed. Each applies to a variety of circumstances differently, and truly empathic people can distinguish the right word for the right people in the right circumstances.

Of course, this refers to a level of what I call cognitive empathy that most students are capable of. While there are challenges for autistic students in achieving this insofar as exhibiting what we might call intuitive empathy, they can know at a basic knowledge level that striking another with an implement will cause them to feel hurt or angry. They may not intuitively notice it by facial expression, but they can know this as the outcome of a simple cause/effect behavioural infraction. This knowledge is critical for our ASD students to attain, as it often is the difference in them being employable or not.

The empathic classroom is the cohesive classroom, taking teacher out of the role of requiring to “catch” students doing the wrong thing and dragging them, often kicking and screaming, to responsibility – empathic students begin to solve problems for themselves. This is where we are fostering the creative and collaborative capabilities that hallmark the learner, worker and leader of emerging western economies. In the short term, it has the potential to make our role (as managers and controllers of student behaviour) redundant.


Don’t have time to absorb the whole article today? Here’s the big points …

  1. It’s about walking in THEIR shoes
  2. Avoid the sympathy trap
  3. Ask questions to promote thinking
  4. Build an extensive empathic vocabulary
  5. Aim for an empathic class to make yourself redundant.



…and you addressed them by reading!

The Big One

1.1 Physical, social and intellectual development, and characteristics of students.

But also …

1.6 Strategies to support full participation of students with a disability.

3.5 Use effective classroom communication.

4.3 Manage challenging behaviour.

Adam Voigt

Adam Voigt is the Founder & Director of Real Schools. Built upon years of experience as a successful Principal, Real Schools helps schools to build and sustain strong, relational School Cultures. A speaker of local and international renown, Adam has delivered a TED Talk and is the schools/education expert for The Project”.

Related Articles

Back to top button
SchoolNews - Australia