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Teachers, stop teaching empathy!

Got your attention? Good!

No, I don’t think you should stop teaching empathy altogether. I just want you to teach something else..first!


Teaching empathy is a beautiful way we create community, increase tolerance, and bridge differences. However, I’m not entirely sure we can teach empathy, the concept of understanding and relating to the feelings of others, to students with trauma histories. What I mean is, how do we teach students to care deeply about others when they have such poor self-concept themselves?

We can’t! I’ve told my students many times...I want them to be happy kids. I remind them how important it is to feel joyful and find happiness everyday. If you’ve been with me for a while, you know these concepts are at the top of the to-do list over task completion. (Check out my trauma-informed hierarchy blog post for more on this.)

For students affected by trauma, regardless of age, it can be extremely difficult to push past feelings of self-deprecation to reach those happy moments. In turn, they can struggle with empathizing with peers because their emotional processes have been disrupted. Students may truly not have natural empathy due to past traumas.

Do we want these students to care about others? Of course we do! Yet, that’s not our first priority.

So, how exactly do teachers support these students in building up to learning how to empathize with others? We teach self-compassion. By breaking down the feelings, language, and concepts of being kind to OURSELVES first, we have a better chance of transferring these skills.

Think about the way we, as educators and adults, do or don’t practice self-compassion. We get caught up in:

  • comparison

  • negative self-talk

  • pervasive feelings of falling short

These feelings arise in healthy, well-functioning adults. Naturally, the same is true for students, and even more-so for trauma affected youth.

Let’s change this cycle and create a safe space for students to learn self-compassion and practice it regularly. In order to do so we must:

  • Teach what self-compassion is and is not

  • Support students in learning to be flexible with mistakes

  • Introduce concrete strategies for problem solving

  • Increase reflective practices

  • Practice positive self-talk

If we can increase student awareness of their internal and external dialogue, as well as their actions, we can work to foster the positive. Calling attention to how students view themselves is powerful work that can help transform student confidence.

When we build confidence, we build engagement.

So, let’s keep the end in sight, fostering empathy, by building the foundation with self-compassionate principles. We can change the script trauma affected students have had, in many cases for years, to increase capacity and foster happy kids.

Self-compassion first, empathy next.

I hope you find moments in your day to practice self-compassion for yourself, modeling it for your students, and providing them with opportunities to learn it, as well!

If you’d like to support your students in becoming more self-compassionate, check out my week-long unit here. You’ll find detailed lessons, print and go resources, as well as differentiated materials for a full week of lessons.


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