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Reducing School Violence by Teaching Empathy


By Ed DeRoche

"If your emotional abilities aren't in hand, if you don't have self-awareness, if you are not able to manage your distressing emotions, if you can't have empathy and have effective relationships, then no matter how smart you are, you are not going to get very far.
" -  Professor Daniel Goleman

Over the past month, we have had informal discussions at the Center about violence from describe the imagebullying to bullets.  Teachers and parents, given the events of the past few months, seem to be struggling to find ways and resources to help their children be more in touch with their feelings and concerns about what happens to themselves and others.  Thus, I want to say a few words about empathy.

Reflecting on our discussions, I began asking myself some questions about the emotions of sympathy and empathy.  For example, the cards, flowers, letters that the Sandy Hook tragedy generated - were those the expressions of sympathy or empathy?

Other questions kept popping up.

-     What is empathy?  

-     Is empathy different than sympathy?  

-     How does one learn to be emphatic?  Can it be taught?  

-     Does the emotion “kick-in“ only when one actually experiences a personal or social tragedy?

-     Do we teach empathy in our schools?  Is empathy in the curriculum?

-     What do teachers have to know?  How do teachers teach it?

-     How do parents teach it?

-     Where and how do the young learn to be sympathetic-empathetic?

-     What resources are available for teachers and parents?

So, like any good researcher, I “googled” the topic!  As you might expect there is a rich array of information.  For example, I discovered that there is a difference between sympathy and empathy.  I discovered that there are three types of empathy.  I found out that there are many resources available to teachers and parents.  No 700-word blog will be able to thoroughly answer all of these questions.  The best I can do here is highlight three discoveries.

Discovery One: There is a difference between sympathy and empathy.

Empathy is the ability to mutually experience the thoughts, emotions, and direct experience of others.  It goes beyond Sympathy, which is a feeling of care and understanding for the suffering of others.  Both words have similar usage but differ in their emotional meaning….Empathy (is) understanding what someone else is feeling because you have experienced it yourself or can put yourself in his/her shoes.  Sympathy (is) acknowledging a person’s emotional hardships and providing comfort and assurance.

There is much more to it then these simple definitions.  My current view is that there is probably a continuum that begins with the development of an understanding and practicing of sympathy (caring, compassion, etc.) that may  “graduate” to enabling one to really experience the empathic stage.

Discovery Two:  There are three types of empathy—cognitive, emotional, and compassionate.

Sam Chaltain (, in his blog, “The Empathy Formula,” offers a “formula” based on the works of Goleman and Ekman (Emotional Intelligence).  In summary, the first stage of becoming empathetic is cognitive empathy - the act of knowing how another person feels.  The capacity to physically feel the emotions of another is identified as emotional empathy.  Compassionate empathy is the combination of cognitive and emotional empathy to take action about what one feels and thinks.

Discovery Three:  There are resources for teachers, counselors and parents/guardians.  

 Three examples will suffice.

a)   Roots of Empathy (,
b)   Second Step ( 
c)    Tribes (

We have resources here at the Center that we will be pleased to send to anyone who responds to this blog or emails us at

I will end the blog with this quote:

“How young children FEEL is as important as how they think, and how they are TREATED is as important as what they are taught.“ - Jack Shonkoff, co-editor, Neurons to Neighborhoods

Originally posted at


Your thoughts on empathy and sympathy are very interesting. I believe there is a root emotion which if not present does not allow sympathy or empathy to occur. The root emotion is caring. Caring is also one of life's five basic needs. Unfortunately our school systems tend not to teach the importance of caring for others. In order to do that teachers have to create opportunities for kids to work together on projects and some teachers do that, but that tends to occur more in the lower grades and disappears as they hit the upper grades. Caring means you have to think about others. Thinking about self tends to occur more that thinking about others. If you think/care about others you can be sympathetic or empathetic.  
Creating conditions in classrooms where servant leadership is modeled by the teachers and students fulfills life's basic need to know that others "care" about each other. 
In the 2nd edition of our book we create a school culture and climate where life's five basic needs are addressed and servant leadership is in place.
Posted @ Tuesday, February 26, 2013 12:51 PM by Dr. Clete Bulach
Scientists in neuroscience, psychology, and sociology actually know quite a bit about empathy and compassion--and there is a difference. While empathy--either cognitive or affective--allows us to understand what another person is feeling, it does not necessarily move us to help that person. That is what compassion does. According to compassion researchers, compassion is the feeling that arises when we see another person suffer and then are moved to act on that feeling.  
There are a number of things that researchers have discovered that prevent us from feeling compassion and empathy, including lack of secure attachment, lack of identification with the person suffering, power imbalance, belief that the suffering was deserved, lack of resources, and cultural differences. 
There are quite a few school programs in the social-emotional learning (SEL) sector that teach children empathy. However, the real revolution in education will happen when SEL practitioners/researchers and character education practitioners/researchers come together to share best practices. Character development requires emotional literacy and regulation, and education of the emotions requires moral development as well.  
For more scientific information on empathy and compassion in schools, please visit the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley
Posted @ Tuesday, March 19, 2013 7:50 PM by Dr. Vicki Zakrzewski
Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this important topic. I am a firm believer that character education is essential in schools and at home. Character undergirds and, simultaneously, transcends "intellectual" growth that often seems to be the principle objective of formal education. In fact, I'll argue, real learning can not occur unless strong character traits, not the least of which is a developing sense of empathy, are developed and supported as fundamental attributes. The integrity of our collective societal character is cracked; the character development of today's children is the mortar that will repair. Again, thank you for sharing.
Posted @ Tuesday, March 26, 2013 7:41 PM by Willard Sistare
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