Empathy in Action - Active Compassion in the Classroom

Empathy in Action

The last 30 days will not be Hallmark days when I look back on my life. In fact, I keep joking I’m “not buying a lottery ticket anytime soon.” I have had home problems (not like a burst pipe but more like thousands of dollars of broken windows), sick kids, COVID, and finally and sadly, a parent unexpectedly took ill and passed away. I told you-don’t get too close. 


I will tell you I have seen a lot of cognitive and affective empathy from my coworkers and family members. Cognitive empathy refers to when someone reaches out and states they understand why you are suffering. Affective empathy is when they reach out and share a thoughtful message and then are there to receive whatever response you have for them. I have appreciated and needed both. 




It’s funny though, I know as an adult, you have to actively reach out to that person who is suffering. Make space and time in your own head to do it. That’s the over-scheduled adult in us. Students don’t miss a beat.


I was surprised a few years back when I was going through a similar low situation and without missing that beat, I had a student nod and listen when I shared that I was worried about a grandparent and, therefore, more distracted than normal. I could still see how quickly his body changed, his hands folded, his body showed me he was actively listening and he was nodding along. He was 11. I spared almost all details, but I wanted to share it wasn’t him, it wasn’t anything at school, it was just life nipping at my heels. 


I worked with this student for several more years and he turned that empathy so genuinely into something else. He bridged that day of active listening to active compassion. He was a student who would look around before the bell rang and do what he could to get the room in order for his class’s departure. He would come to my desk in the AM before his first bell and ask how I was doing or (my favorite) ask if I wanted to hear a joke. That continuation of checking in was a quiet message that said, “I continue to be here for you,” and he nurtured that message for many years. Where is that cloning machine they used on Dolly the sheep way back when? Can I put him in there?



If you have been following my blog posts, you know I don’t like to give assignments to teachers, you have enough. I also know you are desperate to help your students in all the ways. So let’s talk about some active compassion items you can add to your practice and classroom.


1. Proximity: Cheap and easy. There are always those kids who suffer. You have them every year and sometimes you wonder if you should bring them home and maybe book a trip to Disney because you just want them to have a break. They can look messy or quiet or loud. You want to hug them everyday but maybe they are 14 and that would be embarrassing for them. What about having them sit close to you? A close desk during silent reading? Math homework can be done on the edge of your desk during independent work time so you can quickly help them. Even with social distancing, making a special space for these students shows them you are continuously there for them and on no terms. You don’t need to tell me you’re having a terrible, no good, rotten day to get my affection. It’s just here.


2. Appoint a Mindfulness Time (of the week or day): Lessons in self compassion are something we could all use more of. If you feel like this is too much for you to remember, schedule, etc. appoint a “Mindfulness Mentor” for your classroom. Pick a student who you know will carry out the task of reminding you to pause and guide you in a mantra, “This is a safe space, we are doing our best, our best is good enough for right now. Our best is helping ourselves and others become who we are meant to be.” I know you have a line leader in your class that would be willing to keep tabs on if you have stopped to do this exercise every so often. Let them be your mindful secretary (give them my email address too, I could use the reminder).


3. Kindness as a Gift: Make a pinterest worthy board, or write a few ideas on your whiteboard, either work. They can range from sharpening pencils to ‘say hello to a non seatmate’ or ‘offer to help a classmate in need’. Envision saying, “I am having a hard day today, is anyone else? If you are having a good day, can you help the rest of us out by choosing something from the Kindness as a Gift board and giving it out to those of us that need it?” Can you imagine if a student who was struggling suddenly received 9 sharpened pencils on their desk? Shivers.



Join us live (or get the recording after by registering) on December 16th, 2021 at 3:30 pm CST for a Community Conversation on Heartwork: Empathy vs. Compassion. Register for free here.


Written by Ariel Larpenteur, Teacher Success Specialist