015: Cultivating Empathy: SEL in Action

empathy patience sel in action Mar 03, 2022

This week's blog is written by Resonance Ed's Creator of Coaching Content, founder of Plan Z Professional Learning Services, and co-author of the book The Minimalist Teacher, Tammy Musiowsky-Borneman.

Some of the most special moments we experience as teachers are when we watch our students live the skills we teach. 

We’ve been digging into empathy this month in our newsletters and blog feed. This is because empathy is a complex concept to teach and there are many skills to model and practice. Supporting our young learners in developing their empathy skills is critical for their long-term development as well-rounded individuals. 

When we are teaching, we may have social-emotional expectations of students that may not be met. Often what we witness are students struggling to work with each other. Why is that? It could be because we haven’t spent the time necessary teaching the skills needed to collaborate, empathize, and make responsible decisions. In my current school setting, we discovered when there is a struggle, it is necessary to slow down, back up, and teach some specific skills to develop the bigger picture competencies.

I have the good fortune of substitute teaching in a small multi-age group school. Some time each day is spent together in the whole group learning. This approach has pros and cons and can be a solid representation of social-emotional learning in action.

Sometimes though, we assume students at the ages of 10 or 11 automatically have the skills necessary to work with 5- and 6-year old students, because they are students themselves.  

When students work together, they draw upon both inter- and intrapersonal skills. As such, we must be mindful that we are explicitly teaching those intrapersonal skills first. Primarily, patience, empathy, and perspective-taking. 

Patience is an intrapersonal skill, meaning it’s a skill we learn to develop within ourselves. But how do you teach kids to be patient? What makes them impatient in the first place? Recently, when observing upper grade students work with lower grade students, there seemed to be a quick increase in level of impatience as the older students tried to read with their little buddies. We noted this frustration and realized we hadn’t prepared the upper level students to read with their younger counterparts. 

We decided to slow the process and explicitly teach the skills needed when working with the younger students. We began by having students identify their intrapersonal strengths and then moved into strategies they could use to feel calm when their patience was thin. Students soon realized already familiar techniques such as breathing or pausing could be applied in this situation when experiencing frustration.

In addition to some quick patience-building techniques, we knew that we had to talk about empathy, another intrapersonal skill. We knew building a bank of strategies with the upper level students could help them understand how the younger students are at different developmental levels. Once we shared stories of “remember when you were five?” and brainstormed ideas around “what do we think we need to do to help someone is only five?”, Intentionally and explicitly naming the skills and allowing them to internalize the situation, provides the skills needed to effectively work with the younger students.

Finally, after a few weeks of explicitly focusing on and practicing some intrapersonal skills, we noticed the upper level students were more patient and empathetic towards their younger schoolmates. Were they 100% improved? Of course not - they are still learning themselves. The point is that was an improvement in the interactions during mixed-level activities. Students displayed patience and empathy through their ability to pause and listen, rather than showing their frustration with a younger student. When students practice the skills, they are better able to make caring, responsible decisions.

Time invested pays off longer term, but we have to continuously teach and reteach these skills throughout school years. If we do, our students are equipped for having positive relationships with others, and themselves.



Interpersonal Skills: Patience

5 Ways to Cultivate Empathy