Bullyproof Your Classroom With Empathy

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Within each of the five social and emotional competencies—cooperation, assertiveness, responsibility, empathy, and self-control—are skills and standards aimed to mitigate bullying. One competency, however, is uniquely poised to bullyproof a classroom: empathy. Because it is a complex yet elastic set of skills that fosters understanding, diversity of thought, and respect, empathy is a powerful tool for combating bullying. When students practice empathy, their capacity for understanding and kindness expands while they explore the subjectivity of their experiences. By not elevating one’s experience over another’s, empathy serves as an “as if” bridge across different experiences, and allows one to imagine another’s experience and step into it, as if one were living it oneself. As a competency, it is inherently social, situational, and cultural. It is strengthened through interactions with another person or group, and we can build empathy in individuals while also creating an overarching culture of tolerance and understanding.

Preventing Bullying

Schools that teach and practice empathy reported fewer incidences of bullying, a higher likelihood of others stepping in to stop bullying, and fewer incidences of discrimination, teasing, and threats to physical safety (Kahn & Weissbourd, 2014). Within the competency of empathy, students practice skills in two broad areas:
respecting differences and diversity, and understanding emotions and how our actions affect others. These two facets of empathy foster healthy tendencies from the inside out and offer a unique, holistic means of targeting and allaying bullying behaviors.

Here are some strategies and tips to explore using empathy as a means to bullyproof your classroom.

Create a Culture of Kindness. First and foremost, model kindness. As you interact with your colleagues, parents, and students, be sure to demonstrate empathy so students see it in action (Kahn & Weissbourd, 2014). Also, choose children’s literature that shows kindness, children reporting meanness, and children taking care of other children (Crowe, 2015, 234). Empathy will become second nature the more it is reinforced.

Create Clear Rules. Set boundaries for behavior. Offer students open-ended questions to ask when they encounter someone different from them, and provide sentence stems for respectfully dealing with conflict. Be clear about which words and behaviors are not acceptable so students practice and internalize demonstrating empathy and respect every day. For example, teach students to be inclusive by showing them how to include students who may be isolated on
the playground (Kahn & Weissbourd, 2014).

Facilitate Perspective-Taking. Show students how they can humanize others’ experiences by facilitating activities where they can understand another person’s perspective. Using role-plays, books, or real-life scenarios involving bullying, have students remember a time when they were in a similar situation. Ask students to think through empathetic words and behaviors that could help, and then outline a plan of action for how to respond the next time that situation arises (Valentine, 2010). This is also important when dealing with the student who is bullying—meeting these behaviors with empathy reminds us that even when someone is being mean, they are likely reacting to circumstances in their lives. We can then look for understanding, and address bullying from its root cause.

Notice Gateway Behaviors. One unkind comment may seem insignificant, but if left unchecked, students may begin to think that being unkind is acceptable. Respond quickly to unkind comments or behavior so students understand that mean behavior is unacceptable (Crowe, 2012). For example, ask the student who said the unkind comment, “How would you feel if someone said that to you?” or, depending on the situation, ask if something is bothering them that made them feel the need to be mean.

Reflection. Give students the time and tools to reflect on their experiences. For example, if a student is assigned a new, unfamiliar lunch partner, ask them afterward how they felt spending time with someone new (Crowe, 2013). Recognizing emotions in oneself and others is a key facet of empathy, so students need to understand how working through differences or being inclusive makes them feel. Don’t take for granted that this recognition comes easy to every child. Reflecting and honoring their emotions is an important part of the process.

Empathy as an avenue to prevent bullying asserts the humanity of all parties involved and creates space for nuanced understanding and compassion. By taking
small steps to foster empathy in our students and classrooms, we create positive changes in how students interact both with others and with themselves.