What Empathy Actually Is (And How To Teach It)

What Empathy Actually Is (And How To Teach It)

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Developing empathy is a key skill our students need to function in school. It helps them bond with their peers, work as part of a group and function successfully in the classroom.

But what do we actually mean by empathy - and how do we help our pupils develop it? In this episode, we look at the different layers of empathy, how theory of mind (and perspective taking) develop, and share some practical strategies for supporting students in your school.

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Show notes / transcription

Simon Currigan  0:00  

So let's think about teaching empathy. How do we teach these skills to kids? Well, the first thing to accept is some kids simply may not have the neural circuitry to do this, their mirror neurons simply may not be active enough. And there's actually a term for this called mind blindness. So it may be we have to teach them work around skills. Maybe we have to teach them to give a rote answers to fit into society, rather than having some sort of deeper understanding about what the other people are thinking or feeling. 

Hi there, Simon Currigan here and welcome to the latest episode of school behaviour secrets. If other educational podcasts are the equivalent of fine dining and Michelin star food, we're more like a pop tart, cheap and cheerful and the contents are piping hot. I'm joined by my co host, Emma Shackleton. Hi, Emma.

Emma Shackleton  1:28  

Hi, Simon.

Simon Currigan  1:30  

Emma, I've got a question for you. I want to know about a time when you experienced bad customer service.

Emma Shackleton  1:36  

One instance that I can think of is quite a long time ago when we bought a brand new TV. And when we got the TV home all excited and unveiled it from the box, the screen was broken. Now we knew that this hadn't happened in transit as we've been super careful. So the TV must have already been broken when we bought it from the shop. So we loaded the broken TV back into the box and returned to the shop. And I was actually a little bit gobsmacked by how little the staff cared about the problem. The shop assistant basically said it was tough and that the TV was fine when they'd sold it to us and that there was nothing that they could do, we obviously weren't going to accept that we ended up speaking to the manager who was more helpful, he basically agreed that the TV must have already been broken. And he did exchange it for a new one, which was great. But what was interesting to me at the time was the complete lack of care from both members of staff, it was blatantly obvious that they just couldn't give a rat's ass about the problem, the standards or the customer care. Neither of them were interested in the issue or us as customers, and they were visibly clock watching until the end of their shift. Now I know where you're going with this question, because today's episode is all about empathy. Am I right? 

Simon Currigan  2:54  

You're right. oh, by the way, you want to give that chain a shout out

Emma Shackleton  2:57  

Not really. 

Simon Currigan  2:58  

A survey show that lack of empathy is in the top four complaints that customers have about businesses when they're surveyed on the high street. But today, we're not going to think about customer surveys for businesses. Today we're going to be looking at children and empathy, how they develop empathy, because empathy is a key skill that kids need to integrate successfully into the social life of the classroom. We're going to look at what empathy is, how it develops, and how you actually teach empathy to students who find it difficult.

Emma Shackleton  3:28  

But before we get to that, I have a quick request to make. If you're listening to this right now, please can you open your podcast app and use the share button to share this episode with three friends or colleagues who you think will find this information useful. And that means you'll be having a bigger impact than just your classroom and the students they work with to can benefit from the strategies we're going to share in this episode as well.

Simon Currigan  3:53  

So let's put some seed out on the bird table of psychology make a living coo coo sound and tease down that dirty pigeon we call behaviour. So let's start by thinking about what is empathy and empathy is broken down into several different levels. And we're going to look at each of those levels in this section here. So let's begin with what most people commonly mean by empathy. And that's the level of emotional empathy. So emotional empathy is where you literally feel the emotions that another person is experiencing. So you see someone fall over and they're crying, you experience their sadness or upset inside you. If you see someone happy or smiling, that kind of reflects inside you and you have that vicarious experience as well. It's kind of like when you're watching characters on the big screen go through an adventure or heartbreak. When you're watching a movie, you can experience the emotions that they're portraying inside you. And that's because we have something inside our brains called mirror neurons. And they do as the name suggests, mirror the feelings that you see inside someone else. And you can imagine This would be a useful skill to develop from an evolutionary point of view, as we are social animals. And it's interesting because where we experience emotional empathy depends on the emotion. So different areas of the brain light up when we're experiencing emotional empathy, for say, sadness, rather than happiness. So emotional empathy is what most people think. And it's reflecting the emotions of someone else. And you may hear emotional empathy, also referred to as affective empathy. 

Emma Shackleton  5:27  

We've also got something called cognitive empathy. And this is where you can actually imagine what somebody else is thinking. So for example, you can see an argument from their perspective, thinking back to my terrible TV experience from earlier, a staff member who demonstrated cognitive empathy towards me might have said something along the lines of "Oh no, that must have been really disappointing for you to find that the TV was broken when you unpacked it, don't worry, we'll replace it with a new one straight away", they would have imagined how we felt and maybe offered some reassurance that the problem could be fixed. Cognitive empathy helps us predict how people are likely to behave in any given situation. And we can do this because we can think about how others might be thinking. So cognitive empathy is absolutely essential, for example, for teamwork, it helps us to take account of other people's perspectives, and work together towards Win Win outcomes where everybody feels satisfied with the end result.

Simon Currigan  6:33  

So we've got emotional empathy, I can understand how you are feeling we've got cognitive empathy, I can understand what you're thinking, then we have compassion, empathy, or I think of it as active empathy. And this is where the rubber hits the road. This is where we act on our emotional and cognitive empathy to do something to support the other person. So let's imagine we've got a friend who's upset most often our friends don't just want us to understand their pain, they want us to support them in some way. So an example of compassionate empathy might be, you're walking down the street, and you see someone who dropped all their shopping across the road, and you look at their face and their expression, and your emotional empathy kicks in and you feel their sadness, or their frustration, and your cognitive empathy kicks in because you can imagine what they're thinking, Oh, no, all my food is ruined, I've wasted my money. Compassionate empathy, or active empathy is then bending down and helping to pick up the shopping rather than walking on by. When we do this, we're developing deeper social bonds with those around us. So in Emma's example, compassion empathy was what the manager did, he actually acted on Emma's information, he replaced the TV set.

Emma Shackleton  7:43  

And then there's perspective taking, or what sometimes called theory of mind. And that's where we can really put ourselves in somebody else's shoes, and imagine what the world is like from their point of view. And this is hard, even for adults, what most people do is imagine what they would do or what they would feel or what they would think if they were in the other person's situation. And that's different from thinking about what the other person would do, or feel or think in that situation. So perspective taking involves combining emotional and cognitive empathy, and some other skills where we predict all sorts of things about their mental state. It's really quite a high order skill to develop.

Simon Currigan  8:34  

Yeah, perspective taking is super hard even for adults. So let's think about now when do we develop these skills. So it's generally thought that kids don't develop empathy in a meaningful way until they hit about two years old before that kids do develop some emotional empathy so they can look at their parent and understand whether they're happy or upset that at that point, they don't have cognitive empathy. So they might understand that the mother or father is upset but they find it hard to take their perspective. And then because they can't do that they don't act on it you don't see active compassionate empathy or putting someone else's needs above theirs. So an example if you're a parent, I'm sure you've experienced that I have a feeling really quite unwell lying on the sofa feeling really rough with a horrendous cold you've got a cup of Lemsip you looking really rough, you know, your toddler can look at you can see are unwell, but they'll put their own needs first because they really want to play with you and they'll jump up and down on the sofa until you join in. Even though you look really rough. It's interesting kids might develop emotional empathy early than we think experiments has shown kids as young as eight months can recognise emotional distress not just in their parents, but in other infants. So we are developing this an early age, but then the more complex layers, the cognitive empathy and the compassionate empathy. They come later.

Emma Shackleton  9:52  

And we've also got something called joint attention and that's realising that two people can both be focusing on the same thing. At the same time, and this develops in early years as well. So for example, if you point at something, the child will look to see what you're pointing at, and realise that you're both looking at the same thing at the same time. They're also beginning to start reading your intention. Interestingly, animals often demonstrate that they don't have this cognitive ability. So try this with your pets at home. If you pointed something to show your cat, the cat will just look at your finger and not at the thing that you're pointing to. Dogs are interesting though, if you put a bone in a newspaper at the end of a garden and gesture for the dog to fetch, it will often collect the thing it knows that the human wants, not the thing that would naturally go for so often it will fetch the newspaper to please the human rather than fetch the bone to please itself. Well, that's the theory. I'm not sure my dog would do either. She probably just roll over for a belly rub. But it's clever stuff.

Simon Currigan  11:01  

My daughter's going to be distraught to hear that our cat, Mittens, doesn't have complex psychological emotions and isnt able to read people's thoughts. Just like to take a pause for a moment and say that if you're finding this podcast useful, then you're going to love what we've got waiting for you in our Inner Circle programme. The Inner Circle is your one stop shop for all things behaviour. It's a comprehensive platform filled with videos, resources, and behaviour inspiration to get you unstuck with classroom behaviour. We've got training resources on de escalation, supporting kids with anxiety support strategies for conditions like autism, ADHD, and PDA. Practical ways of helping pupils deal with strong emotions, assertive behaviour management techniques for managing the whole classroom, setting out your classroom environment for success, resetting behaviour with tricky classes, and more. Our online videos walk you through practical solutions step by step, just like Netflix, you can turn an Inner Circle subscription on or off whenever you need to. With no minimum contract. Plus, you can now get your first seven days of Inner Circle for just one pound. Get the behaviour answers and you've been looking forward today with Inner Circle visit to www.beaconschoolsupport.co.uk And click on the Inner Circle picture near the top of the homepage for more information. 

At two years old children do begin to understand intentionality in a more complex way. So what we mean by that is starting to read people's motivations for their actions starting to understand why they're doing the thing that they're doing. So they can start to understand that a person is making a sandwich because they're hungry. And importantly, they start to understand the difference between someone engaging in an action accidentally and someone who's doing something on purpose. So if someone walks past them and bumps them, they can understand that could be an accident, in which case, one response is more appropriate, or they deliberately went and hurt me and barged into me, in which case another reaction is appropriate. So they are starting to take perspective in a way and understanding people's motivations. And this really interesting isn't limited to humans, there are studies to show that other primates can do this. And again, you can see in a social animal, how understanding someone's intention would help you fit into the group and be successful.

Emma Shackleton  13:24  

And just imagining two monkeys now working out whether somebody bumping into them was done on purpose or not.

Simon Currigan  13:31  

Those bananas have gone everywhere.

Emma Shackleton  13:33  

So by the time they start school, then most kids have a higher level of emotional empathy. And they are developing cognitive and compassionate empathy to, but this does vary massively from child to child. So you'll have some school starters that are well on the way with this. And then you'll have other children that it takes them much, much longer to pick these skills up. Sometimes it makes it hard for children to understand the impact of their actions on others. So for example, well, I knocked over the tower of bricks because I wanted to be a dinosaur. And just not recognising that the tower of bricks is important to somebody else. And just because you're wanting to be a dinosaur and knock things down, that might not be what everybody else is wanting to do as well. So they're just beginning to work those things out,

Simon Currigan  14:22  

At ages four or five, they do start to develop some more complex theory of mind and perspective taking and there was a fascinating experiment all around false belief. Now false belief is understanding and predicting someone's actions based on what they believe around the world rather than what's actually true. So the experiment went something like this. They had a child in a room. And there were two adults Let's call one adult, the experimenter and the other the stooge. So there's a table and there's some crayons on the table, and there were two boxes, box one and box two. So there's students in the room and a child in the room and the experimenter picks up the crayons and shows both the child and the stooge they're going to put the crayons in box one, and then they closed box one, the stooge makes some excuse to leave the room, they've got to go and take a call or do some work or something, and the child sees the stage, leave the room and close the door. So now in the room, it's just the child and the researcher, then the researcher opens box one takes out the crayons, puts them in box two, and closes the lids of both boxes. So the crayons are now in box two, and the child has seen the crayons transfer from box one to box two. And then they call in the stooge, the researcher asked the child, if the adult wants the crayons, which box will they go to. Now before the age of about four or five. at an earlier stage of development, the child knows that the crayons are in box two, and the child will say the adult will look at Box two, because they don't appreciate that although they know the truth, the other person doesn't know the truth, they can have a false belief. Now obviously, when the stooge left the room, they saw the crayons go into box one, and they haven't seen the crayons being transferred from one box to the other. When the child reaches about age four, age five, they start to develop that more complex thinking they can understand that the stooge can have a belief that isn't correct. And this is sort of the turning point, the child will start to say, well, the student will look in box one, but actually we moved them when they weren't looking. Screening has shown that kids with autism find false belief really hard, appreciating that someone can believe something's not true, or something different from them. And they go on to find coping with the idea of false belief hard, even later in life. 

Emma Shackleton  15:08  

And these are really important skills, because they help us to engage socially with the group help us to predict what people do and what their intentions are. So it's really understanding those subtle nuances of social interaction. And without the skills The world is quite a scary place. Because people appear to be unpredictable, and may even behave in a way that we find threatening. And this can lead to a buildup of anxiety and stress. Some children can mask the lack of empathy by learning by rote what to do or say, in certain social situations. So for example, some children, if they hurt somebody will say sorry, because they know that, that's the socially acceptable thing to do. But they're just saying it by rote. And they don't actually feel sorry, they haven't got the feeling behind it. So although we might think that they are socially skilled, actually, they've just learned to say something by rote that they know gets a positive response, and they don't really have the feeling behind it.

So let's think about teaching empathy, how do we teach these skills to kids? Well, the first thing to accept, as Emma's just mentioned is some kids simply may not have the neural circuitry to do this, their mirror neurons simply may not be active enough. And there's actually a term for this called mind blindness. So it may be we have to teach them work around skills, maybe we have to teach them to give a rote answers to fit into society. Rather than having some sort of deeper understanding about what the other people are thinking or feeling. The first step when we're teaching. Empathy, of course, is to help the child understand their own emotions, if they can't label if they can't link the emotions, the feelings they're having in their body to basic labels like happiness, sadness, excitement, anger, upset, then they're not going to be able to do that with someone else. So to understand someone else's emotions, you first have to be able to recognise what you're feeling, and place a label on it for your own emotions.

And teaching empathy is often about going back and being explicit about the skills children develop in the early years. And some children, even quite older children do need to revisit this with the way that we can do that is by role modelling and explaining scenarios from other people's perspectives. And we'll have to do this over and over again, this isn't something that can be taught in a one off lesson. For example, the best way actually, is to do this through those little micro moments that when things happen in the classroom, when things go wrong, or when things go well, just taking a moment to pause and reflect on what's happened and explain it from the other people's viewpoints around them so that children can start to recognise that not everybody goes around thinking and feeling the same as them all of the time. Many children respond well to using mirrors, linking photos of faces two labels for emotions, so being able to look in a mirror and make the face that reflects the emotion that's being depicted on somebody else's face in a photograph, for example. So when we mirror those facial expressions or photos, sometimes that can generate some of those feelings to this is quite tricky, but it's really helpful for children to be able to read and recognise that sometimes other people's emotions can be shown through their faces and through their body language, because when we can start to read that and interpret that, we get a better understanding of how other people might be thinking and feeling.

Simon Currigan  20:10  

Once you can recognise and label the emotions of other people. The next step is to start thinking about their intention sort of moving from emotional empathy towards cognitive empathy, understanding their thoughts and predicting what they're telling themselves in certain situations. And there's a few good ways of doing this. One is to draw some pictures showing a story, perhaps Jasmine and Michael are playing together and Michael takes the ball. And then thinking about what is Jasmine feeling that while she's feeling upset, and asking the question, Why is she upset and then trying to attribute basic motivation to that. Another great way of doing this actually is with puppets. Puppets are more dynamic than drawing things out on the page, kids project, you know, all sorts of motions and attentions onto puppets. And they're fun, and they're exciting. So acting out different situations with puppets, and asking how each of the characters felt and what they were thinking in that situation can be a really engaging way of pulling children into the activity and helping them develop those skills.

Emma Shackleton  21:08  

And another great little tool is a comic strip conversations and social stories, actually, they're really useful for teaching empathy. So comic strip conversations, if you don't know already are simple little drawings that are made together with the child to illustrate exactly where people stand in a situation and what they might be thinking or feeling. So it's as easy as drawing a little stick figure that represents one person, a stick figure to represent somebody else, and then working out what they might have been thinking or feeling at the time that something happens. And of course, this isn't foolproof. And of course, everybody sometimes misinterprets those signals from others, but it's building up the child's ability to recognise what other people might be thinking or feeling based on how they look what they're saying what they're doing. Social stories are really personalised tool, and they help children to rehearse socially desirable behaviours in common situations, such as how to invite somebody to join in a game for example, many children respond really well to visuals. So comic strip conversations, and social stories are both great techniques to use when teaching empathy. And we can also support children who have difficulties with empathy by learning planned responses that they can use in social situations just to help them fit in. So this helps them to survive in the social world. But remember, we mustn't confuse this with them having learned empathy, it's actually just a surface socially acceptable response that helps them out in a situation.

Simon Currigan  22:47  

And interestingly, while we're talking about kids who have difficulty with empathy because of their neural circuitry, there is some evidence to show that some kids are hyper empathic, which means they experienced an overload of empathy, which makes it hard for them to cope with the emotions and feelings of others. So you can have the opposite problem from being under empathic to over empathic.

Emma Shackleton  23:07  

So we hope you found our journey into empathy, useful and practical. We looked at the different levels of empathy. So that's emotional, cognitive, compassionate, or active, and perspective taking, and how empathy develops, and some practical ways of developing empathy for kids who find understanding the emotions of others difficult.

Simon Currigan  23:32  

And if you're working with pupils who struggle with their emotions, we've got a range of resources to help inside our inner circle. We've got video training on subjects like how to use emotional scaling, which is all about helping kids take action, when they're experiencing strong emotions, like anger or anxiety. We've got how to coach people through strong emotions, which shares a simple Framework for Teaching kids the skills to manage big emotions for themselves and not to overreact to situations and how to de escalate, which is a deep dive into successfully managing kids when they've lost control of their emotions and actions. We've even got a module on how to use comic strip conversations in there. 

Emma Shackleton  24:10  

And right now you can get access to all of that training for yourself and over 28 or the modules with our Inner Circle membership, and you can get your first seven days for just one pound. And that means that you can cancel your subscription at any time.

Simon Currigan  24:27  

To take advantage, visit a www.beaconschoolsupport.co.uk  and click on the big Inner Circle picture near the top of the page. I'll also drop a direct link into the show description.

Emma Shackleton  24:38  

Next week we're going to be talking to Therese Hoyle who's an expert on making lunchtime successful for all pupils in school, which is such an important period of the day for developing our students social skills, but we all know it's often the time of day when most behaviour incidents happen.

Simon Currigan  24:58  

She gives loads of practical ideas In the interview, so to make sure you don't miss it, you've got two choices. The first involves an elephant because as we all know, elephants never forget. And actually, modern elephants exploit this and do run online concierge services so you could text the elephants at your local zoo. So you need reminding about the next episode of school behaviour secrets. when it's released, they'll remember it for you and text you back. Only thing is sometimes they get the predictive text wrong because their big feet are cumbersome, and it makes it hard to pick out the characters on the screen. So be prepared for misspellings, which all teachers hate. And be aware that those texts will be charged at a premium rate. Those elephants are running a business and not a charity after all. Or you could open your podcast app right now tap the subscribe button or Follow as it's now called an apple podcasts and the app will automatically download every episode for you, so you never miss a thing.

Emma Shackleton  25:55  

We do rely on word of mouth recommendations. So if you find this episode useful, remember to share it with three friends or colleagues who would also benefit from what we've covered. That's it for today on school behaviour secrets. We hope you have an amazing week and we look forward to seeing you next week. Bye now.

Simon Currigan  26:14  


(This automated transcript may not be 100% accurate.)