An Educator’s View: The Empathy & Compassion Biden Talks About Are SEL Skills Every Child Should Have. How Teachers Can Help Students Learn Them

President-elect Joe Biden hugs his grandson after winning the presidency (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

During his acceptance speech, President-Elect Joe Biden spoke directly to those who didn’t vote for him. “But now, let’s give each other a chance,” he urged. “It’s time to put away the harsh rhetoric. To lower the temperature. To see each other again. To listen to each other again.” He talked about his COVID-19 response plan as one that would be “constructed out of compassion, empathy and concern.”

Compassion, empathy, seeing and listening to each other — these are all skills that are centered in social and emotional learning. The vision Biden is calling for is the same one we impart to our children when we teach them SEL skills, particularly when we incorporate an equity and anti-racism lens.

SEL involves developing children’s skills for recognizing and managing emotions, creating empathy, fostering positive relationships and problem solving. They promote intrapersonal, interpersonal and cognitive knowledge, skills and attitudes that support lifelong success.

SEL with an equity lens teaches children not only to develop empathy, but explicitly to learn how to be in community with others who may think, feel or live differently from them. It teaches children to cooperate with each other and to appreciate and honor each other’s humanity in all its complexity and beauty.

Educators can help children develop these skills in the classroom (both in person and virtual) in a number of ways:

1 Offer them time to be together and share pieces of themselves through storytelling that isn’t centered on school, but on their feelings and experiences

The more children are able to share their stories, the more they see that they actually have a lot in common with people to whom they might think they are diametrically opposed. They also gain a deepened sense of their humanity and the things they’ve experienced that have made them who they are. This increases understanding, which promotes empathy and enhances relationships.

One way educators can put this into practice is to generate a list of topics and pick one each week to focus on. There can either be a discrete time and space for students to share stories, and/or it can be integrated into the curriculum. For example, they can ask students whether they have ever felt excluded, and what emotions that raised. How many have themselves excluded others, and what did that feel like? This gives children the opportunity not only to recount their experiences, but to reflect on them — a skill set that should be nurtured and strengthened.

2 Offer windows and mirrors through literature

Mirrors — stories that reflect and validate our own experiences — and windows into the experiences of others help develop empathy. Quality multicultural children’s literature can help kids see themselves, their families and communities, and put themselves in the shoes of someone else. Storytelling in all forms has a powerful effect on us as human beings. Whether educators use the books they’re already teaching or add new ones to the curriculum, what matters is the questions students are asked to help them reflect on the stories. What could they relate to in this story? What was new to them? What advice would they give a character who seemed upset? How might they end the story? These types of questions allow kids to develop awareness of themselves and others.

3 Model empathy and compassion

Parents and educators know that kids are always watching, so they have to be mindful of how they react to those around them. It’s important to model being able to say sorry and learn from mistakes. They should tell their own stories about feeling excluded — though children sometimes think adults were born big and can’t relate to them, we have all at some point felt not smart enough, not attractive enough, not popular enough. Humanizing ourselves and modeling healthy interactions is critical to helping kids develop SEL skills.

We in the education field should take Biden’s speech as a call to action, to implement in our classrooms the values he’s talking about on the national stage. As our deeply divided country moves forward, we need to teach our children to overcome these divisions. They will be leading us soon enough, and they must be equipped to do so with strength and compassion.

Kamilah Drummond-Forrester is director of social and emotional learning program Open Circle, and was previously a co-founder and director of wellness at a Boston charter school.

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