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In K-12 education, there’s a strong push for STEM education. It’s for good reason, math and science are important. But where should social-emotional learning rank? Psychiatrist Helen Riess, MD, believes we’re in a society that’s ill-equipped to talk about emotion and feelings. Riess thinks we need more than just information in this world to succeed. She believes we need to be taught how to have difficult conversations. We need to engage with people who are not like us.

For Riess, teaching with empathy in the classroom is crucial. So important, she dedicated a chapter in her book just for teachers. Riess, a psychiatrist and Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, authored “The Empathy Effect: Seven Neuroscience-Based Keys for Transforming the Way We Live, Love, Work, and Connect Across Differences.

Her book, which is supported by research, answers whether or not empathy is an innate quality. Can it be taught? Or is it just something we’re born with? She also offers tips on how we can develop into a more empathetic person.

“Empathy is not one thing, says Riess. “It’s actually a capacity to perceive and understand and know to some degree what experiences another person is experiencing.” When Riess talks about empathy, she’s speaking about capacity for perception.

Empathy in the classroom

For a student to be motivated, they need to see that the teacher recognizes them as unique individuals, says Riess. There’s nothing more powerful than making meaningful eye contact with students. To show I see you and that you’re not just looking at a blur of faces, says Riess.

Riess suggests that educators should register each student’s eye color in their mind. Don’t say the eye color out loud, but take time to really look at a person’s eyes’ unique color. She says it will build a connection with the individual.

She also suggests teachers should silently “name the affect” when working with students. Affect is a scientific term for emotion.

There’s a well-known phrase, “if you can name it, you can tame it,” says Riess. “If you can name that somebody looks confused. You’re probably going to be a little more conscious of trying to clear up confusion than if you just look at someone’s face and don’t try to name what emotion you’re seeing.”

Riess also suggests that everyone should learn the ABC of empathy

  • Acknowledge – when you’re in a difficult situation
  • Breathe – take a deep breath. Gives a pause from the trigger to the response.
  • Curiosity – as soon as we move to judgment there really is no open door left to show empathy. But if we say ‘I’d like to understand why you did that.’ Once the person is listened to and heard, you might get to a deeper level.

To learn more from Riess, listen to Episode 170 of the Class Dismissed Podcast on your favorite podcast app or iTunes.

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