Combat Bullying With Empathy

While bullying at school has certainly evolved over the years with the onset of technology and social media, the basic problem persists among younger people. Bullying often occurs in subtle verbal or emotional ways rather than the more noticeable physical bullying. This can make it tricky to manage a school. While we know every good teacher will not tolerate bullying in his/her classroom, we also know how challenging it can be to spot it and eradicate it. Our hope with this short series is to help you make a preemptive strike against this undesirable behavior, creating a classroom culture of safety and empathy where all students feel welcome. For the second installment in this series, here's how you can combat bullying with empathy.

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It’s relatively easy to teach kids your curriculum. Much of it is factual, non-negotiable, and very black and white. There are teachers’ editions, answer keys, and fellow content area experts within your reach in the building should you hit any questions you can’t answer.


But as teachers, you’ll often find yourselves standing in teachable moments that go beyond your content. Life lessons, reading social cues, empathy.  It’s part of what makes an educator’s job so difficult–because it’s not something you can just consult a teacher manual about.

Compounding this challenge is the fact that your students’ minds are still growing out of their self-centric bubbles. They are slowly becoming more aware of others around them and the impact that their actions have on their peers. To combat bullying with empathy means you are, in fact, preventing and stopping conflict within the classroom. But it also means that you're teaching those in your classroom a meaningful and compassionate way to care for others around them for the rest of their lives.


The good news is that schools offer plenty of opportunities for students to grow in empathy. The tricky news is that you’ll often be the one to have to mitigate it. It doesn’t come naturally to everyone, as you’ve been trained to teach kids core content. It takes some practice and loads of experience. 


Brene Brown once said, “We need to dispel the myth that empathy is ‘walking in someone else’s shoes.’ Rather than walking in your shoes, I need to learn how to listen to the story you tell about what it’s like to be in your shoes and believe you even when it doesn’t match my experiences.”


That can feel like a heavy call as a teacher, but just accept the fact that it won’t always look pretty. And that’s ok. Here’s what you can do to combat bullying with empathy:

Model empathy as you lead your classroom.

That means showing all kids that you are a safe place to hear them out; the easy ones, the difficult ones, and those in between. Show that you’re actively listening and not always trying to match their experiences or fix anything. Your students just need to know that you hear them.


Teach strong listening skills.

Kids need to learn how to ignore impulsive knee-jerk interruptions or have a comeback for everything. Be sure your classroom is a place where students are heard by their peers.


Facilitate conversations between students who don’t understand each other.

Allow them each equal time to explain their perspectives and mitigate moments that start to escalate. Show them that each side has merit and value and that apologies may be warranted from one side (or both). Often there will be a clearly wrong side, but you may be surprised to hear there’s more to the story. Give students time to think things over before forcing a fake apology. Utilize your school counselor in cases where you feel in over your head or when it’s taking up more class time than you can offer. There is no shame in that.


Explore multiple points of view.

Students often need to be reminded that there are two sides to a story. Villain stories are all over the place and are a fun way to show this. Read something like The True Story of the Three Little Pigs (Jon Scieszka) or The Julian Chapter (R.J. Palacio) to show perspectives that they wouldn’t have otherwise known. Use the lesson as a springboard to have them explore alternate points of view–perhaps have them rewrite a story from an antagonist’s point of view. It doesn’t have to be heavy to get the point across; they could rework “The Raven” from the bird’s perspective. 


Correct non-empathetic behaviors

The key is to do this gently and not shame anybody. While some kids are very aware of their self-centeredness, others truly don’t realize how their words and actions affect others. Regardless, every student should feel safe to make mistakes while still being held accountable. Consequences should match the infraction, so use your judgment and be fair.


Be creative 

Find other ways you can explore empathy in your classroom. I saw a teacher on social media who had students anonymously write their struggles down, and she read them aloud (with fair warning before they wrote). Hearing the heavy experiences of their peers read out loud–divorce, death in the family, feeling isolated, heavy social pressures, etc.–affected her students, shining a light on the truth that you just never know what someone is going through. It also helped others see that they were not alone in their own battles.This may or may not work in your classroom, but it’s a good example of thinking outside the box to get kids out of their own heads.

An empathetic classroom culture can truly increase the joy in your job, so make it a priority as a teacher to combat bullying with empathy, and see how it shapes your days.


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