Student empathy is disappearing from schools. Here’s how to get it back.

We talk a lot about how busy educators are. But students are busy too. Really busy. With class, homework, sports, and other activities, there isn’t a whole lot of time left in the day.

Unfortunately, students’ personal relationships with family and friends sometimes suffer as a result of crammed activity calendars.

While social media and other online outlets offer a sense of connection that didn’t exist all that long ago, those kind of interactions often fall short when it comes to one critical social skill: empathy.

In fact, a study from the University of Michigan found that today’s college students are 40 percent less empathetic than previous generations.

So what can be done to ensure today’s students develop a better sense of empathy and understanding for others?

One idea is to focus on social-emotional learning in K12 classrooms. Some states have gone so far as to coordinate standards on how to teach these skills, according to a story in Education Week.

But authors Jessica Alexander and Iben Sandahl offer another idea: set aside dedicated time in school for students to connect with and learn from each other.

The inspiration for this idea may surprise you.

Introducing ‘Class’s Hour’
Alexander and Sandahl were inspired by classroom techniques observed in Denmark while writing a book The Danish Way of Parenting; What the Happiest People in the World Know About Raising Confident, Capable Kids.

The authors were particularly interested in the concept of “Klassen Time” or “Class’s Hour,” explains this article by Kate Stolzfus in Education Week.

Once a week, teachers put aside time for students to connect with their peers and their teachers.

Asks Alexander: “By dedicating an hour a week to teaching kids to put themselves in someone else’s shoes from the ages of 6 to 16 and helping to find solutions together, what kind of changes could we bring about?”

Each school has its own approach, but the idea is to set aside regular time for students to listen to each other and to help each other work through unresolved problems, both in class and at home.

The hope is that students will gain a better appreciation for the problems of others and be better-equipped to support those in need.

When students are more empathetic, they also tend to do better in school, writes Stoltzfus. She points to research that connects empathy with lower rates of bullying and suspension and higher graduation rates.

Empathy through engagement
At the heart of the Class’s Hour approach is a focus on engagement. Fortunately, you don’t need to dedicate precious class time to make engagement a priority. Here are some steps you can take to integrate principles of engagement without an overhaul of your existing curricula:

  • Empower students to express their thoughts and concerns, either in person or in private, such as in an online forum where students submit complaints.
  • Conduct a survey where students can express their fears and concerns anonymously. Share the data you collect from that survey to help students understand that their anxieties are shared by others.
  • Monitor social media for calls for help.
  • Let students know you’re listening to their concerns by drafting new policies or strategies and letting them know that they aren’t alone.
  • Provide empathy training to teachers and staff during annual professional development workshops and help educators prioritize empathy in their classrooms.

How do you prioritize student empathy in your schools? Tell us in the comments.

Want a better way to listen to and understand students’ concerns? Encourage your students to share their feedback with you in a safe way.

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