Fostering Empathy and Broadening Perspectives

By Lisa Poskanzer, #SELinAction Series

This chat is part of the SEL in Action community chat series led by Innovation in SEL grantees from across the country. These casual chats are designed to provide a safe space for educators in this community to discuss topics that matter most to them, find inspiration, talk honestly about challenges, and co-create solutions.


Coffee and conversation, anyone? One cold Saturday morning, we came together for an open discussion of what empathy really means and how it impacts behavior and interactions in the classroom. We quickly came to a common recognition that empathy greatly impacts the relationships, mindsets, and overall school climate for both students and educators.


Empathy is a gift we can all give to each other

Lisa Poskanzer, a second grade teacher in Lake Worth, Florida, shared this definition of empathy to ground our conversation: “empathy is the ability to be aware of, understand, and share the thoughts or feelings of another.” In so many cases, students are stressed. Teachers are stressed. How do we take care of each other? How can we be more understanding?


Simple strategies making a difference

Debbie Holecko, a middle school social studies teacher in northeast Ohio, shared that an uptick in bullying prompted her school to prioritize empathy. North Olmstead Middle School, the school where she teaches, is implementing community groups whereby every teacher (and some non-instructional school staff who have volunteered) meets with a small group of students once a week, as part of the school schedule. The goal is to ensure every student has at least one adult with whom they can connect regularly, and the small groups provide a structured opportunity to explore social and emotional learning (SEL). Just before winter break, Debbie’s group of eighth grade students wrote holiday cards for seniors living in a nearby group home. The students came up with the idea themselves in response to the question rooted in empathy, “What could we do to make them feel better?”

Fostering empathy within her students is something Lisa is also working on in her second grade classroom. She has a set of fun games that she plays with her students to help them develop empathy and practice active listening skills in a “safe, fun, and enjoyable environment. They learn how to do it better because they learned it when their brains were receptive rather than stressed out.” Just like practicing math skills, her students practice empathy. In the game “You Say, I Say,” students engage in conversation but can only say something new after first repeating what the other person said. The topics are light so kids laugh and enjoy themselves while learning how to be active and empathetic listeners.

Lunch meetings are another way to help students develop empathy, as well as take a more gentle approach to discipline. Rather than giving demerits or detention, lately Debbie has sent student “an invitation” to lunch. During that time, they talk about the behavior problem–sometimes along and sometime along with another student who was involved in the conflict. Debbie asks them to consider, “What if you were me? What would you do?” and “How do you think it makes your classmate feel?” Her goal is to help students see that what they say and do makes a difference, as well as to continue growing relationships based on trust and understanding.


Exercising empathy as educators

Students aren’t the only ones who need to develop and practice greater empathy for others. Lisa’s school serves a large immigrant population. She regularly reminds herself, and her peers, that their students have life experiences and real worries that need to be understood and considered. “I need Carmen to really care about learning how to read, but she may be worried about daddy being in jail or being sent back to Mexico when, you know, she’s never lived there.”

While student needs always come first, it’s also important to remember that many teachers are overloaded and may be experiencing stressors, inside and outside the school, of their own. Since returning from the SEL in Action convening this past fall, she has been reflecting more on how to take care of her peers and recognize that, as she tries to spread SEL, she must make an effort to be understanding of what is on other teachers’ plates. After all, we all need to have empathy for and take care of one another.


About Our Chat Host

Sevenzo would like to thank Lisa Poskanzer for hosting this community chat. Lisa is a 2nd grade teacher at North Grade Elementary School in Palm Beach County Schools. She designed her school’s Improv to Improve project which uses improvisational exercises as a means to teach social and emotional competencies, and founded i2iEDU to provide these tools and training to other teachers and childcare workers. Lisa believes that the best learning takes place when we don’t even know we’re learning… we’re just having a good time.


Join the Conversation

Join us for the next SEL in Action community chat on Thursday, January 24 at 7:30pm Eastern Time as we discuss teacher self-care with host Robin Sizemore. Come as you are to listen, share, and take away ideas. Register here to join.