Building the Empathy Muscle: An Important Skill for our Future

Today’s newsletter piece serves as the culmination of our deeper exploration of Roycemore’s Portrait of a Graduate.  Over the last number of months, we have examined each of the subset of skills within the Portrait’s overarching tenets of Scholarship, Citizenship, and Emotional Intelligence and how we support students in acquiring these skills within our curricula and experiential programs from the age of three through high school graduation.  Last week, we explored the importance of Interpersonal Skills– especially in this age of the Fourth Industrial Revolution with its advances in machine learning and the prediction that machine intelligence will equal human intelligence within eight years. I made the case that it will be important to cultivate interpersonal skills and for humans to teach machines compassion or empathy. In a technology-rich world where the average teenager spends nine hours per day interacting “anonymously” with media rather than interacting directly with another human being, we can find ourselves with a deficit of empathy. 


In “The War for Kindness,” psychologist Jamil Zaki examines the field of empathy studies.  He points to a study that suggests that from 1979 to 2009 human empathy declined significantly.  He further writes that over this period of time, our society has become more urban, more individuals live alone, and we interact in more solitary ways.  Interestingly, this is also the same time of the advent of the personal computer and the Internet, pointing to a possible correlation with a decline in empathy.  When we interact online, we don’t experience the immediate response of an individual’s emotions through their facial reaction in real-time–leading to a greater likelihood that we dehumanize people that we don’t share common bonds with.  As we think about the experience of children spending such significant amounts of their lives interacting with technology, if we want to cultivate empathy, we should consider emphasizing time with other people.  Taking it a step further, it is important that we provide them with experiences that intentionally expose them to individuals who are not like them– experiences that allow them to truly feel how another is feeling, see things from another’s perspective, and appreciate the validity of that person’s feelings. Herein lies the power of Roycemore’s Portrait of a Graduate that calls out the cultivation of empathy as an important skill and embeds it throughout the student experience rather than as a separate “character program” or a one-off class.  From the literature that students examine to drama class, to robust discussions, students gain perspectives that build their empathic muscles.

Reading narrative fiction, whether they be novels that older students explore or storybooks that younger students peruse, provides opportunities to contemplate different points of view.  Daily morning meeting and reading times in the Early Childhood and Lower School naturally embed empathy as part of their conversations for our youngest children. The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People is often used as a framework for this dialogue. In Middle School Humanities, many of the novels that are selected for discussion are chosen for this purpose in addition to the novels serving as great works of fiction.  For example, in A Long Walk to Water, “the main character faces an incredible amount of hardship,” says Middle School teacher, Grace Erb.  “This has led to some amazing conversations and empathy towards others.” Amy Milner adds, “Most of our literature has protagonists close in age to our students but living in a different place and/ or time.  We make many connections between our struggles and privileges and those of the characters in the books we read.”  As students progress to the Upper School, they will continue to read literature that represents diverse and pluralistic points of view.  In History, Bill Horine ensures students “explore the plight of the ‘other’ in our global community– those disadvantaged by resource insecurity, greater impact of climate change, or those who just approach the world differently from us.”  In English classes, Charlotte Freccia adds, “students will be required to expand their existing ideas and opinions by exploring new areas of research and interpretation in their independent work.  For example, in AP Comp, students research the origins and labor practices involved in the production of a single ingredient from a favorite meal for their research paper. Knowing more about the world equals caring more about the world.”


All Middle School students participate in drama each year and Upper School students have the opportunity to participate in dramatic productions or take Improv classes. Acting is a highly effective empathy-building activity as students must take on the character of the individual they are portraying and understand what motivates the individual at a deep level.  As drama teacher, Lizanne Wilson, says, empathy is “foundational to the work we do in drama.  Justice, equity, cultural humility, and understanding… FOUNDATIONAL.”  


Physical education and athletics provide great opportunities for students to build empathy (as well as exercise their brain physically versus being in front of a screen).  “P.E. is an opportunity for children to socialize and further develop their social-emotional learning skills,” says P.E. teacher and coach, Courtney Barlow.  “Team activities create a space where students feel empowered to listen and share, build relationships with peers and identify how to appropriately express themselves and relate to others. Students will be encouraged to “elbow bump”, or give “high fives”, and positive affirmations after activities will promote empathy for other teams.”


French teacher, Adeline Courtial shares, “Teamwork, patience, and sharing are keys to empathy. In class, the best way to teach empathy is to create a good atmosphere within the class. No one has to be left behind and therefore different team activities can be proposed while interchanging the participants so everyone can know each other.”  Upper School teacher Karen Byrnes agrees, “Students have strong relationships with many of their peers and faculty.  These relationships help build empathy because we all practice kindness and understanding toward each other and when someone in our community does not do this, we quickly work to correct that and make it a teaching moment, not a disciplinary one.”  This approach extends to the math classroom as well, “We spend the beginning of each year building a classroom culture of empathy, focusing on understanding that everyone has different strengths,” says Katie Carson. “We talk about why we never use the word “easy” in class, since what may be “easy” for me may be very challenging for another person, and vice versa.”

Regardless of how soon machine intelligence will equal human intelligence, experts agree that it will happen.  It, therefore, is incumbent upon schools to think strategically about how to prepare children to live lives of purpose, fulfillment, and contentment of their own choosing rather than be servants to algorithms that control their lives. As Roycemore students progress through their studies and ultimately graduate, matriculate to university and then enter the work world, having honed the skill of empathy, they will be well-positioned to serve as leaders in whatever field they pursue.  In fact, The Center for Creative Leadership found that individuals who demonstrate empathy are often some of the most sought-after leaders in the workplace today. Empathy is a key aspect of EQ, one of the most important people skills that separate average from exceptional performance among individuals.  It may also be one of the most important skills to cultivate in the new dawn of the singularity, which is why Roycemore’s commitment to fostering empathy as a key EQ skill, and cultivating EQ equally with Scholarship and Citizenship in our Portrait of a Graduate sets our school apart from many other educational programs.


In partnership for the education of your students,

Adrianne Finley Odell

Head of School