Nurture empathy (4 of 4)
SecEd recently published a piece on Character Education I'd written while I was still Education Manager at Keep Britain Tidy. It is quite long, so I've split it into four parts to post here. You can read it in full over on Sec-Ed. This is part 4 of 4. You can read part one here.
As described by Jessica Alexander, co-author of the Danish Way of Parenting, in another recent article in The Atlantic, Danish schools put an emphasis on the development of empathy from an early age. Empathy and the action of empathising is something that can be nurtured and expanded so that we do it more often and more effectively over time. Empathy is different to sympathy in one crucial way. Empathy is about connecting with people and the emotions they are experiencing.
You do this by (re)connecting with your own past experiences of those emotions and by sharing them to help your friend connect with you and therefore feel less alone. Empathy requires emotional investment; reconnecting with painful emotions from one’s past can be uncomfortable and even painful, this requires bravery, but we do it because it helps. Sympathy is more detached, it is less involved, the difference is that you feel sorry for someone, rather than with someone.
When you feel something with someone a bond can form and these (comforting) bonds build our resilience as groups and individuals. This is explained beautifully by Brené Brown in a short RSA animation.
Children in Danish schools develop empathy through a variety of structured exercises. For example, they are shown pictures of people exhibiting a range of different emotions and are asked to describe their own feelings and the feelings of the people in the photos.
This helps children to learn the meaning of different facial expressions and trains them in self-control so that they are better equipped to respond in non-judgemental, empathic ways in real life. Many more ways like this are described in The Danish way of Parenting.
Character development is very often a group process, as individuals we grow through the shared experiences we have with our peers. We bond together to overcome difficulties and share successes and are stronger for them.
As educators we can help children to develop the skills they need by working with them to create environments in which character emerges naturally and organically.