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School Stories

Partnering With Parents to Cultivate Empathy in Our Students

By Kathy Riley, Lower School Counselor
Recently I was in the library with a group of prospective students. One child was on the verge of tears as he looked longingly at the door waiting for his parents’ return. The educator in charge was encouraging all students to come to the rug to listen to a delightful book. Another little boy noticed how this sad fellow student was reluctant to join the group, hanging back on the outside of the circle. The boy turned ever so slightly to face the sad student and enthusiastically waved him over, encouraging the boy to sit with him to listen to the story. This was a small gesture but one that positively welcomed the sad boy and left an impact on the whole group. I couldn’t help but think, “I hope this student comes to Graland.” I’m lucky enough to witness small, empathic acts like this all the time and feel they’re the glue that holds our thriving community together. 

I believe partnering with parents to cultivate empathy in our students is one of the most important things we do as educators at Graland. Parents often ask what they can do to foster empathy in their children. For such questions, I often turn to Making Caring Common, a project from the Harvard Graduate School of Education whose focus is “Raising kids who care about others and the greater good.” They say, “Children learn empathy from watching us and from experiencing our empathy for them. When we empathize with our children, they develop trusting, secure attachments with us. Those attachments are key to their wanting to adopt our values and to model our behavior, and therefore to building their empathy for others.”

Empathizing with our children takes many forms, such as taking a genuine interest in their lives while valuing and respecting their individual personalities. I’ll never forget the father who embraced baking when his daughter became obsessed with “The Great British Baking Show.” Often, I’d arrive at my office to be greeted with delicious goodies they’d baked over the weekend with a note of appreciation for my work at school. That dad wanted to know more about his daughter’s interests, connect with her, and, bonus, they showered me with yummy treats!
Children also learn empathy by watching whom grownups notice and appreciate. They’ll notice if we treat a service person as if they’re invisible, and on the flip side, they’ll notice if we welcome a new community member or express concern for someone experiencing a challenge. Some of the most bittersweet moments I’ve experienced at Graland have been when community members have been sick. As cards have been written and meal trains planned, students have shared in the act of caring for others and felt the warmth it has brought both them and the person being cared for. Prioritizing such acts demonstrate the value placed on caring for others. 

One of my favorite conversations with fourth-grade students always starts with me asking, ”Are we more alike than we are different or more different than we are alike?” As they defend their position, it’s fascinating to see students grapple with this question. They inevitably get to the fact that it’s human nature to have empathy for family members, close friends, and people who are like them in some ways. But, it can be harder to have empathy for people outside of their circle. As parents and educators, it’s important that we model appreciation for people that are different from us, and because someone is different from us does not mean they are dangerous. We help guide children in their understanding and care for many kinds of people, some of whom may be facing challenges very different from their own. We encourage children to consider the feelings of those who may be vulnerable and how they would feel in similar circumstances. It’s always heartening when children then feel empowered to take action. Whether finding ways to help families in Ukraine or a lonely classmate, kids have amazing ideas about how they can be of service to others.

As Making Caring Common states, “Empathy is at the heart of what it means to be human. It’s a foundation for acting ethically, for good relationships of many kinds, for loving well, and for professional success.” A solid parent-educator partnership in which we’re modeling compassion and engaging in rich conversations steeped in respectful perspective-taking is paramount in cultivating empathetic students. I’m lucky enough to witness the byproduct of this collaboration daily, and let me tell you; it’s heartwarming.  

Graland Country Day School

Graland Country Day School is a private school in Denver, Colorado, serving students in preschool, kindergarten, elementary, and middle school. Founded in Denver in 1927, Graland incorporates a rich, experiential learning approach in a traditional classroom setting, emphasizing the development of globally and socially conscious leaders who excel academically.