How to Use Technology to Help Students Develop Empathy

5 Steps to Empathetic (Digital) Citizens

You likely already know the importance of empathy in the classroom, and the basics of teaching this vital trait in your students. You may not know the steps to teach it or the value of technology to aid you in your quest.

Where to Start

Step 1: Assess your Student’s Empathy Skills
Assess to give you a starting point. Learning empathy isn’t a one and done experience. It’s a process, and kids need to go through several steps on their way to becoming empathetic. Parenting Science outlines three vital skills that kids need to gain as part of developing empathy:

Emotional sharing (also called “emotional contagion”), which occurs when we experience feelings of distress as a result of observing distress in another individual
Empathic concern, which is the motivation to care for individuals who are vulnerable or distressed, and
Perspective-taking, the “ability to consciously put oneself in the mind of another individual and imagine what that person is thinking or feeling.”

Step 2: Teach the Language of Empathy
There is a lot of language that goes into learning about empathy. Children need to know how to express their feelings and recognize those of others. This includes basic feeling words as well as more nuanced words such as annoyed vs. irritated and happy vs. elated.

Use video clips, photos, and gifs to help demonstrate with visuals what these emotions look like and feel like. The visual component of emotions is vital. Technology gives us the capability to pull students in and make vocabulary development concrete for students.

Step 3: Teach the Skills
Like anything else kids learn to do, empathy takes skills, a ‘very particular set of skills’ as Liam Neeson said. These skills need to be explicitly taught:

Self-Regulation: The ability of kids to calm themselves down when they are upset and to handle their emotions in positive ways. How do we teach this? According to Gwen Dewar, PhD,

“We can foster empathy by being ‘emotion coaches.’ That means acknowledging (rather than dismissing) our children’s negative feelings, and engaging them in conversation about the causes and effects of emotions. It also means helping kids find constructive ways to handle their bad moods.”

Connecting with Others: Kids need to find things in common with other kids and be able to create a connection. ‘Hey, he’s/she’s just like me!’ kid’s think when they, for example, see that the bully they fear likes Minecraft too!

Sympathy for Others: Children’s emotional language abilities come into play here. Part of empathy is identifying how others are feeling and why. Teachers should ask questions such as ‘How did you feel when something similar happened to you?’ Or ‘How do you think she is feeling? What do you do when you feel that way?’

Cognitive Empathy and Perspective Taking: While perspective taking is a higher order skill that many kids don’t fully develop until they are in their teens, it CAN be learned. Kids can learn not to just ‘feel with’ others, but also how to help them. Kids can be taught as young as two years old think things like ‘When I am sad I feel better with my favorite toy, so maybe I can help him feel better with a special toy too!’

Reading Faces, Tone, and Other Communication Subtleties: For many students, especially those who fall on the Autism spectrum, reading facial expressions, body language, tone, and irony, sarcasm, idioms, and double meanings need to be explicitly taught. Technology is extremely valuable in this way. For example, instead of (or in addition to), contorting your face into your full array of available facial expressions, you can search for photos of people with a variety of facial expressions from many backgrounds.

Applying These Skills

Step 4: Put it in Context
Kids now need to learn why their empathy skills are essential and how to apply them. Digital tools give us opportunities to teach kids in new ways. One great example is the variety of guest speakers that are available remotely via Skype. Kids can meet people from different backgrounds that they might not otherwise be able to meet and see new perspectives. They can see real-life environments. Perhaps they could view and virtually interact with a real job site. They could see how people interact with each other, rather than just reading about it.

Students also particularly enjoy video based curricula like First Job Survival Skills, which uses VideoModeling™ to enable students to learn real-life job skills vicariously through the characters on screen.

Step 5: Practice Makes Perfect
New VR (virtual reality) tools are available that help kids get a chance to feel what it is like to be in situations they haven’t yet encountered. Sometimes kids are shy or struggle socially, but in virtual reality, they can ‘practice’ their reactions in a simulated reality. Children can use a virtual identity to help develop their real self-image and to rehearse situations where empathy is typically formed.

If VR is not available to students, they can take advantage of educational apps like the Circles Social Skills Utility™. This innovative iPad app, based on the proven effective by Harvard Circles® Curriculum, teaches students about social boundaries for abuse prevention in an engaging, interactive format.

Why Teaching Empathy with Technology is Important

Many important aspects of communication are lost in digital conversations. In particular, tonecan be difficult to decipher online – even more so for students who fall on the Autism spectrum. This makes it crucial to utilize technological resources to give students a well-rounded SEL education.

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