Teaching Empathy

Adapted from Essentials in Education

“Part of our formal education should be training in empathy. Imagine how different the world would be if, in fact, it were ‘reading, writing, arithmetic, empathy.’”

– Neil deGrasse Tyson

Empathy is the key to encouraging prosocial behavior, limiting aggression, and diminishing social prejudice in our world. “To empathize is to civilize,” says Jeremy Rifkin, social theorist and author of the book, The Empathic Civilization: The Race to Global Consciousness in a World in Crisis. And, here in his TED Talk — The Empathic Civilization — Rifkin reimagines our world as a place where we cultivate enough empathy to see earth and all its residents as one large social unit. He argues that this is the opposite of a Utopian notion, and yet, it does seem quite idealistic, particularly as it is in contrast to our current mainstream model of public schooling where character education and social emotional learning take a back seat to testing. Education expert Dr. Michele Borba, author of UnSelfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World, believes that empathy “needs to be woven into curriculum, not tacked on,” adding, “We are such a trophy-, SAT-obsessed society, but if parents would recognize the value [for success] beyond the humanness, civility and ethics, they might get it.”

The research shows that higher levels of empathy make people more productive in cooperative learning and work environments, and empathy education has even been proven to boost traditional academic success as well. Future leaders in business, politics, art, and beyond will need emotional intelligence to participate meaningfully and relate to others in an increasingly complex world. Studies, like this one, show a simple and straightforward connection between empathy indicators in children and grade point average.

One particularly interesting study noted the effects of empathy on comprehension in reading, literature and social studies.  “The empathic child is better able to place him- or herself in the role of central characters portrayed in the fictional and historical readings. In addition to being better able to understand the roles and perspectives of these fictional and historical characters, the empathic child is better able to share and experience, to some degree, their feelings. These shared feelings may serve to underline and reinforce what they have read and been taught, resulting in better recall. (Budin, 2001; Cress & Holm, 2000).”

Educating children in, and with, empathy also has a direct effect on their behavior and motivation. Studies of student behavior in schools that focus on fostering empathetic communities have found that students in high-community schools are more likely to become thoughtful and reflective, to be self-directing, to be concerned for and respectful of others, to avoid courses of action that are harmful to themselves or others, and to maintain higher standards of ethical conduct

It’s not surprising then that empathetic students do better after their schooling as well. The authors of Emotional Intelligence 2.0, Travis Bradberry and Jean Greaves, found people with high emotional intelligence and empathy (which they call EQ) made an average of $29,000 more each year and they also attributed EQ to having a 58% influence over job performance.

So, the WHY of empathy in education is pretty clear here in the 21st century. What about the HOW?

Science increasingly suggests that empathy is a skill that can be learned and mastered, and we are gaining a better understanding of how to teach it in the classroom. Educators can foster, cultivate, and teach empathy in their communities and classrooms by keeping these three principles top of mind:

1. Focus on a Child’s Emotional World

Emotions are a key player in motivation and learning. Emotions and emotional intelligence play such a large role in achievement because emotional well-being primes students to learn and eliminates potent emotional distractions – anxiety, fear, jealousy, anger – that interfere with learning.

In Waldorf Education, special attention is given to the child’s whole being — head, heart, and hands — with the heart being the emotional core. Learning self-regulation, listening skills, empathy, patience, and kindness towards others paves the way for intrinsic motivation and cooperative learning.

2. Use Story to Foster Empathy

Children who are encouraged to use their imaginations have the ability to place themselves into story, literature, and history lessons. Inquiry-based learning helps students adopt and emotionally connect to their lessons. What would it feel like to live during the Middle Ages without doctors or plumbing or schools? How would you feel about an arranged marriage at age 13? How did our character feel about it? The more students understand the influences their experiences have on their own mindsets, the more they can empathize about others’ experiences and mindsets in past and in current day settings.

3. Actively Model Empathy

Positive teacher and student relationships are a key ingredient to student success. Waldorf Educators are particularly poised to take advantage of this dynamic, since they stay with students through multiple grades. Therefore, it becomes even more essential to model empathy and understanding for all students within the classroom community.

Genuinely caring for students, understanding their home life and backgrounds, believing in their potential, engaging in non-authoritarian discipline styles, and customizing one-on-one teaching when possible are all examples of empathetic leadership skills in the classroom community.

By teaching students empathy in an authentic way, we will not only see direct benefits in the classroom community, school community and student achievement, but we will ultimately help foster a better world — one that social theorists and philosophers believe is essential to thriving as a global community.


We’re in the final stages of lease negotiations with the landlords of our potential new elementary school space at 160 Christopher street. We will let everyone know as soon as we’ve signed a lease. In the meantime, we want to make it clear to our community that our Early Childhood Center (Seedlings, Maples, and Mixed-Age Kindergartens) will remain here at 62 Ave B for the next 5 years.

March Parent Evenings

Juniper, Willow, & Maple
NEW DATE: Wednesday, March 13

Louise deForest will join all three early childhood lead teachers on the topic of "Setting Boundaries."

Grades 1, 2, & 3
Wednesday, March 20


Coffee Friday
Friday, Feb. 1

Good coffee. Good conversation. Downstairs after drop-off.

Grades Parent Discussion Q&A w/Jody Spanglet
Friday, Feb. 1

Jody Spanglet, school director of the Ashwood Waldorf School in Maine, will share the benefits of a mixed-age elementary grades classroom. All grades parents and rising first grade parents are invited to join.

NO SCHOOL - Professional Development Day
Tuesday, Feb. 5

NO SCHOOL - Professional Development Day
Monday, Feb. 11

Parent/Faculty Talent Show
Thursday, Feb. 14

Winter Recess (SCHOOL CLOSED)
Monday, Feb. 18 - Friday, Feb. 22




Calling all New Amsterdam Makers:

Can you make a handmade item to donate to The Neighborhood School’s Maker Sale for Puerto Rico? All proceeds will be used to support the Al Rescate de Mi Escuela (Rescue My School) program in PR. See attached instructions and try to submit items by this Friday, Feb. 1 (though items will be accepted through Thursday, Feb. 7). Thank you!

Earth Arts

Friday Earth Arts (after-school Village Peeps) explores the children's interests and ideas outdoors and draws from observations found within nature to inspire creative projects. Last week, the children noticed the shadow of the big garden tree and created a long spiraling "path," excavated crystals and treasures from the earth, wove willow branches, and used a mud mixture to stamp smooth stones with leaf stamps. Next, they’ll be exploring the idea of cooperation with nature and "process versus product."

Kim John Payne


“The Overwhelm of Boys”

A Lecture at New Amsterdam School

Save the Date:

Thursday, March 21 at 7pm


Did you know that your Amazon purchases could be raising funds for our school? Shop through Amazon Smile to easily help our school:

1. Go to smile.amazon.com

2. Choose New Amsterdam School as your selected charity

3. Shop as normal and a percentage of what you spend is automatically donated to our school! 

Belle Savransky