How Can Teachers Cultivate Social Connection and Empathy in the Classroom?
At Franklin Elementary’s fifth grade continuation ceremony, Principal John Melkonian made a bold statement. He referenced the school’s teaching of core virtues and asked students to remember that while academics were important, being good people was what would make them successful in life.
The need to focus on school culture as well as curriculum has become clear in the past 15 years. To combat both bullying and large-scale school violence, advocates for healthy school climates examine where students’ social connection and empathy begin to break down — and how to repair or prevent it.
What does social connection in the classroom mean?
The viral Momastery post “Share This with All the Schools, Please” outlines one elementary teacher’s ingenious method of identifying kids who were falling through the cracks in her classroom. By having students vote every week for, ostensibly, who they wanted to sit next to and for a peer who earned the title of “exceptional classroom citizen,” she was able to see patterns. Who is never chosen as a seat mate or good citizen? Which student used to have plenty of friends, but doesn’t have any now? Who is simply invisible to his or her peers?
While that particular method might not be practical for all teachers, preventing students from losing connection to each other lies at the heart of a healthy classroom culture. Fostering peer relationships and empathy enhances children’s emotional intelligence, which is linked to overall academic achievement. While developing these skills is an inexact science, using them is very important to a student’s long-term success.
Create and maintain a positive classroom environment
For teachers, the first step in cultivating social connection and empathy is to ensure that your classroom environment is a safe space for every student in attendance. Here’s how:
- Set clear ground rules about how students treat themselves, each other, and their teacher.
- Display classroom rules on classroom walls — students can even decorate them for added ownership.
- Ask students to hold each other and their teacher accountable for meeting community expectations.
Clearly communicating and enforcing classroom rules makes students feel secure in an invested and engaged learning community.
Find common ground to create connection between students
After setting guidelines for the classroom environment, teachers can use small discussion-based methods to build social connections in the classroom. While it is important for teachers to maintain a leadership position and enforce boundaries, it is also essential to engage students as individual members of the classroom. This can be as simple as starting class by inviting students to share their weekend activities or to discuss favorite books or television shows.
In the same vein, culturally responsive teaching can help students find common ground and feel valued. Using CRT methods gives students an opportunity to share things that are important to them with each other and also find commonalities with people they may never have connected with before. Additionally, attempts to connect their curriculum to their lives can reinforce your content learning as well as the chance to invest in each other after discovering previously unspoken connections.
Empathy exercises from the National School Climate Center
Portions of instructional time can also be used to foster empathy and social connections. The National School Climate Center, a non-profit that focuses on social and emotional learning, offers many classroom activities designed to cultivate caring learning communities.
The short exercises below require adequate explanation and preparation, and should be followed by a debriefing period that allows students to reflect upon their experience and communicate how they felt during the activity.
Alike and Different
One activity suggested by NSCC, called Alike and Different, suggests creating a series of small groups using seemingly non-threatening concepts. The teacher will run down a list of potential groupings like television preference or whether students can roll their tongues. Groups form and reform as the teacher moves further down the list with students constantly moving between artificially created social circles. The creation of these groups, despite their non-threatening basis, leads to feelings of belonging or exclusion.
After going through a variety of potential groupings, have students return to their seats to talk about the experience. Students could discuss the kinds of assumptions they made before, during, and after groupings as well as how such divisions made them feel. They can then debrief on how this might play out in students’ experiences at home or school, what parts were challenging for them, and how it might affect their future behavior.
Another great short lesson in collaboration and cooperation is mirroring. This exercise can be fun for students and is exactly as it sounds: two students sit across from each other. One acts as the leader, completing a series of actions while the follower attempts to mimic their movements. Then students switch roles. After they have finished mirroring each other, students can talk about how it felt to be the leader and the follower and what influence those feelings might have on future behavior.
With limitations to instructional time, investment in social connection can feel like a time-waster, but engaging students in an active and equitable learning community can decrease barriers to learning like bullying and classroom conflict. It also allows students to participate in an engaged learning community and grow their own emotional intelligence, leading them to not only be academically successful students, but good people as well.
Monica Fuglei is a graduate of the University of Nebraska in Omaha and a current adjunct faculty member of Arapahoe Community College in Colorado, where she teaches composition and creative writing.