Why We Must Teach Perspective-Taking When Developing Empathy
Editor's note (6/11/19): The National Network of State Teachers of the Year, the organization whose members write for the Teacher-Leader Voices blog, has a financial relationship with Empatico that was not disclosed prior to this post's publishing. For more information, see this note to readers.
I would sometimes have conflicts with other people as I was growing up. Some of the conflicts were with other kids and some were with adults. When I'd bring one of these issues to my mom, she'd guide me through thinking about the issue from different perspectives.
She'd have me think about my own thoughts and actions. Then, she'd have me think about the other person's thoughts and actions. My mom ultimately wanted me to think about "why" people act the way they do in different situations. She was teaching me perspective-taking from a young age.
We must teach perspective-taking when developing empathy for the following reasons:
To Prevent Selfishness and Narrowmindedness
The world has enough narrow-minded people who are selfish and self-serving. Perspective-taking is a skill that was taught to me by my mom and reinforced by many awesome teachers I had over the years. I'm so thankful for my perspective-taking skills because they help me to navigate the world in an empathetic way.
Unfortunately, some teachers and parents are not teaching this skill, proving to be a disservice to young people. As teachers, we should want our students to expand their thinking and see the world through other people's eyes. When we teach students to connect to others and their experiences, we are helping them to develop empathy. Selfish, narrow-minded children become selfish narrow-minded adults. Educators are positioned to help guide young people into being empathetic humans who are not self-serving and egocentric.
To Develop Patience and Understanding in Children
Perspective-taking allows us to be more patient and understanding. Humans can be so quick to judge harshly, showing a lack of empathy. Having some patience and a willingness to seek understanding of other people's behaviors will allow us to better co-exist with love, kindness, and empathy.
As humans, we all have not always shown patience or understanding to others. As empathetic as I consider myself to be, I am sometimes guilty of judging others without executing patience or trying to understand. Awareness matters! I've had teachers and family members who have pointed this out and reminded me of the importance of having patience and seeking to understand others.
I also remember a grumpy, angry teacher that was in my school as a child. She seemed awful! When I had her as a teacher, she lacked energy and was sometimes annoyed with the students. I'd get so frustrated with her. When I couldn't take it any longer, I started to complain to my mom about her. I remember my mom telling me that maybe this teacher was just a bad teacher. Or, maybe she was dealing with something in her life that her students didn't know about or couldn't even imagine.
Months later, I found out at conferences that she was fighting for her life and going through cancer treatments while trying to work full time. She couldn't afford to take time off during her treatments. That meant she came to school sick most days. This teacher mustered up every little bit of strength just to get through each day she showed up. My mom was right. From that point on, I worked hard to make an effort to show patience with others and seek to understand their behaviors.
To Unite Students by Looking at Different Perspectives
People are more likely to work together and unite when they can genuinely look at the world from different points of view. As a teacher, I work hard on developing my students' skills so they can work together. Whether a small group of my students or my entire class is working together, each of my students has their own thoughts, experiences, and beliefs that influence how they act.
One of the most powerful teaching tools I have used to teach different perspectives is the book, Wonder, by RJ Palacio. The main character, Auggie Pullman, is born with many medical issues and does not look like a typical child. He looks different. Some kids may say he even looks scary and deformed. The book is all about Auggie's journey starting a new school and his good and not-so-good experiences interacting with both friends and bullies. When I teach this book in my class, my students unite so strongly together, while examining different perspectives on what Auggie and other characters in the book experience.
Another tool I have found powerful for teaching empathy through perspective-taking is the Empatico platform. My students have opportunities to connect, using this free technology platform, with students their age across the country, learning about their thoughts, beliefs, culture, ways of life, and their experiences. The two classes connect through video chat, where they can both see and talk to one another. Each class has noticeable differences, yet they connect because they are willing to explore different perspectives.
As teachers, we must work to ensure our students are able to take different perspectives. I learned from a young age that all people have challenges and unique points of view because of what my mom taught me. All people face challenges, adversity, and have personal experiences that may be driving their behavior. Our willingness to take different perspectives or look at the world from a different point of view is what will ensure empathy is part of our minds and hearts. And empathy makes our society a more caring, kind, and accepting place for all of us to live.
What are your favorite strategies and tools for teaching perspective-taking and point of view? Share your ideas in the comments.
Nicholas Kleve is a fifth grade teacher with South Sioux City Schools in South Sioux City, Nebraska and an adjunct professor of education for Wayne State College. Nicknamed "Mr. Funky Teacher," Nick is a passionate, dedicated, and dynamic educator focused on inspiring young people to be smart and honorable human beings by working directly with them and empowering parents and other teachers to do the same. He is an Empathy Fellowship Challenge 2.0 National Fellow and the 2015 Nebraska State History Teacher of the Year.
Photo Credit: @mrfunkyteacher on Twitter
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