HELPING TEACHERS INSPIRE COMPASSION FOR ANIMALS, PEOPLE & THE ENVIRONMENT

About

Blog

The promise, some pitfalls, and how to practise EMPATHY

Empathy is our theme for this year and a core focus of humane education. Empathy has been shown to improve communication skills, prosocial behaviours like cooperating, sharing, and helping and reduce bullying. But empathy is complicated as we don’t always apply it equitably to people or animals.  This blog dives into the different dimensions of empathy, some of the short falls and how to overcome them through fostering empathy in the classroom.

What is exactly is empathy?

Empathy most simply put, involves “understanding, sharing, and caring about the emotions of others”1. It’s a general term that describes different ways people respond to one another and involves both the affective and cognitive areas of the brain2.

Affective empathy or emotional empathy is sharing feelings with others. It is hardwired into the brains of people and is seen throughout the animal kingdom. When you see someone upset, you might instantly feel upset too through the vicarious sharing of emotions. Affective empathy is seen in toddlers, dolphins, prairie voles, chickens and many other primarily social animals3,4.

Cognitive empathy or perspective taking has a separate neural pathway and involves understanding another’s internal states2. If you see a friend who is upset because his cat died, you can imagine what he might be thinking and feeling. This mentalizing of other’s internal thoughts and feelings is more complex than affective empathy and is not found throughout the animal kingdom5. Cognitive empathy is a skill that is learned as an individual develops their theory of mind and helps with predicting the emotions of others, including animals6.

Both the cognitive and affective domains work together to elicit an empathetic response or compassion1. Compassion is motivational – it spurs us to take to help others. This might be helping an injured or scared animal, or providing support to a grieving friend. This empathetic response is crucial to social species like ours – we rely on others for help to survive.

The problem with empathy:

Empathy comes to us more naturally for people and animals who we are more familiar with and similar to7. It is much easier to empathize with a close friend or family member than with a stranger or someone who supports a political ideology that is different from our own5. The same is true with animals, it might be easier to empathize with a dog, a mammal that people tend to be familiar with, than with a fish or snake. These biases that lead to discrepancies in our empathetic responses that can cause harm from discrimination towards groups of people to poorer welfare outcomes for animals we have difficulty relating to. However, by practising empathy– through exercises that have us consider the thoughts and feelings of others – especially those who we may struggle to empathize with, is key to treating all living things with respect and compassion. 

Practising Empathy in the Classroom:

Encourage perspective taking: Empathy is a skill and something we can practise and get better at. Promoting consideration, care and perspective taking can be woven into all subject areas. Our character education empathy resources include discussion questions and cross-curricular activities that encourage perspective taking and challenge how we think and feel about others. Activities span from reading body language and predicting emotion to creating art from the perspective of an animal.

Storytelling: Research has shown that the use of good literature can promote social-emotional learning including empathy development8,9. Stories allows us to step into the shoes of the characters and see the world from their perspective. Stories also give us an opportunity to consider the values and actions of the characters and reflect on our own morals and decision making. To reinforce thinking critically about stories, engage students in reflection, discussion and analysis. To assist teachers, we have created the AnimalTales book program, designed to promote empathy through stories, discussion and activities. The program is free and available from Alberta teachers from kindergarten to grade 6 – visit our website to learn more and request the program. Our website also has animal-themed book recommendations and resources that foster critical thinking and awareness and encourage students to consider the perspectives of all characters including animals.

Model it: We become better models for empathy when we practise empathy ourselves. Through conscious effort we can flex our empathy muscles a little more – it’s a skill that can be refined and strengthened. We can strive to engage in more perspective taking within our families, with colleagues and most importantly, with people we don’t know or may not agree with.

Empathy encourages understanding and builds bridges and we need more of it for a kinder more compassionate society.

 

References:

  1. Depow, G. J., Francis, Z., & Inzlicht, M. (2020). The experience of empathy in everyday life. Psychological cience, 1–43.
  2. Berliner, R., & Masterson, T. L. (2015). Review of research: Promoting development in the early childhood and elementary classroom. Childhood Education, 91(1), 57–64. https://doi.org/10.1080/00094056.2015.1001675
  3. Woolrych, T., Eady, M. J., & Green, C. A. (2020). Authentic Empathy: A Cultural Basis for the Development of Empathy in Children. Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 1–20. https://doi.org/10.1177/0022167820934222
  4. Edgar, J.L., Lowe, J.C., Paul, E.S., Nicol, C.J. (2011). Avian maternal response to chick distress. Proceedings of the Royal Society B 278, 3129-3134
  5. Zaki, J. (2019). The War for Kindness: Building empathy in a fractured world. Broadway Books.
  6. Young, A., Khalil, K. A., & Wharton, J. (2018). Empathy for animals: A review of the existing literature. Curator: The Museum Journal, 61(2), 327–343. https://doi.org/10.1111/cura.12257
  7. Mather, J. (2019). Ethics and Care: For Animals, Not Just Mammals) Animals9(12), 1018; https://org/10.3390/ani9121018
  8. Almerico, G.M. (2014). Building Character Through Literacy with Children’s Literature. Research in Higher Education
  9. Wolk, S. (2009). “Reading for the World,” Educational Leadership

The promise, some pitfalls, and how to practise EMPATHY

Empathy is our theme for this year and a core focus of humane education. Empathy has been shown to improve communication skills, prosocial behaviours like cooperating, sharing, and helping and reduce bullying. But empathy is complicated as we don’t always apply it equitably to people

Read More »

Recommended Summer Reads (and Listens)!

Hello teachers! With summer around the corner, you might be looking for some interesting books that you will finally have time to read or audio for the car, on a walk, or just relaxing at home. Here are a few suggestions that will challenge your

Read More »

The Benefits of Humane Education

Humane education is an approach to teaching that fosters empathy and compassions towards animals, people, and the environment. When we teach students to be kind, to show compassion and to be respectful to animals, not only does it have a positive impact on animals, it

Read More »

Record-Breaking Kindness Challenge!

This past December, a record breaking, thirty-eight Alberta classes committed to participating in the Kindness Challenge. Students from kindergarten to grade 7 spread acts of kindness towards self, others, animals, and the environment for the first half of December. Each day students completed a different

Read More »

Meet Gloria Ho: The Artist Behind the Posters

For the past six years, the Alberta SPCA has been fortunate to collaborate with local artist, Gloria Ho, in creating our character education classroom poster series. Each year Gloria paints animals that help convey the annual theme. Over the years, thousands of these posters have

Read More »

Using Books to Create a Caring Classroom

This school year started like no other. As we transition through these challenging times, it is important for everyone to show a little more compassion and empathy towards others. It is important for us, as teachers, to begin fostering these qualities in students at the

Read More »

A Message for Teachers:

Dear Teachers, Thank you for your hard work and dedication to students in this exceptional time. The need for caring for others is becoming ever more salient and we recognize and value the important role of teachers and learning communities in proving support and care

Read More »

Students Making a Difference through ‘Class Action’

Service learning projects are a great way to address curricular outcomes while providing students the opportunity to leave a positive and lasting impact on the community. The Alberta SPCA’s ‘Class Action’ projects to help animals, people or the environment provide an opportunity to engage your

Read More »

E-news Sign Up

Subscribe to our monthly e-news for activities, ideas and information on integrating humane education into your classroom!