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Teaching Compassion to Students and Why It's Important

compassion.jpgWhen it comes to education, reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic, used to take center stage and were the standard menu of what was taught to students starting in elementary school. Over time subjects like social studies and history, the applied sciences, and arts and culture were added to the list. In today’s world of education, where students are exposed to seemingly endless cascades of information and are coming to terms with growing up in a world highly affected by globalization, such subjects as community outreach, service learning, and multicultural units are sought after, even in the lower grades.

Bottom line? Students are learning a lot.

All subject areas have their place and offer significant development and exploration for students of all ages; as education continues to develop and change and schools attempt to foster more community-focused and united environments, subjects like mindfulness and compassion have gained popularity. So what happens when we explore teaching students concepts like kindness, mindfulness, and compassion, as courses themselves? Let’s dive in.

According to an article on, which explores the benefits of creating a “kindness curriculum,” the school environment is often highly stressful, over-stimulating, and a feeding ground for both minor and major bullying. While such realities cannot be entirely eradicated, (nor should they be if one is to develop character and resilience in a sufficient way) “caring practices” such as well-wishing circles and allowing quiet time for students to self-regulate, calm the nervous system, improve focus, and cultivate compassion, all of which help foster an overall better learning environment.

Compassion is a strong buzzword in today’s world, both within education and beyond, and it remains a powerful practice that helps encourage empathy and brings connection to those who otherwise might not connect.

Education World explores how “active compassion” on the part of teachers can help direct students from floundering to flourishing; sometimes it is as simple as a student having that special teacher or advisor to talk to about her problems that makes her capable of overcoming and succeeding in school. Why not carry those qualities into the classroom as part of learned curriculum? Teachers can promote active compassion by maintaining positive expectations, exuding warmth (while remaining firm), courteousness to all students and faculty, allowing students to take ownership of their learning, and to avoid at all cost the temptation to make sarcastic and cutting remarks. Compassion takes practice, but much like any habit, it builds upon itself; the more practice of active compassion, the more it builds up overall.

Teachers are humans, too (despite their sometimes superhuman accomplishments) and have to practice cultivating empathy and compassion as much as the next guy; everyone has bad days and is prone to mistakes, but the more teachers (and parents) can practice empathy with their students, while still maintaining standards of learning and discipline, the more equanimity will result in the classroom. Simply modeling exercises like taking deep breaths before reacting to an uncomfortable situation can allow a teacher to keep her cool while also instilling some valuable tools in her students, rather than losing her temper and reprimanding, which can create a tense and even hostile environment, depending on the school setting. Even writing these rules out as something both teacher and student can strive for and placing them visibly in the classroom can be a great motivator for a school year.

Just how does one go about allowing concepts like compassion and empathy to truly sink in?

Much like developing a growth mindset, having an open mind is key. In truth, compassion cannot necessarily be taught the way that solving an equation can, but it can certainly be modeled and thus a part of classroom or school community expectations. Mindsets go far. An article on Mind/Shift explores how quickly setting the tone in the classroom is perhaps the most important factor in creating a healthy educational environment.

In an interview with Dr. Robert Brooks, who once taught at a school within a lockdown psychiatric unit, he keenly observed that teachers “have to start with the assumption that everything you do in the classroom can have a major impact on a child’s life, not only in the classroom but later, too.” He noticed that certain behaviors like micro-managing and overly-controlling students in an attempt to instill order actually created more chaos and disease. Instead, he proposes a mindset shift across faculty that encourages maintaining big picture “why are we here and working in this profession” awareness, not taking student behavior personally, and allowance when applicable instead of force and rigidity. He emphasizes not blaming students for struggling in certain areas, but instead modeling how they might take steps to improve and reach the consistently high expectations that should be set in both individual classrooms and school communities as a whole. This would not only help teachers ward off burnout but encourage students to develop traits like resilience, self-awareness, and both self and other-oriented compassion.

The world of education is complex and intricate, and while we cannot make it perfect or perfect for all teachers and students all the time, we can certainly take steps to help improve the mindsets and dispositions of teachers and learners. Learning compassion and kindness may not fix or prevent every problem, but they certainly cannot hurt. Try implementing a bit more of this in your classroom, with your children, or as a student or child yourself, and notice how things may shift for the better.

About the Author

Stephanie Ingraham is a former English teacher turned writer and tutor with a BA in English from UCLA and a Masters in Education from Pepperdine University in Los Angeles. She is deeply passionate about education, psychology, child and adolescent development, literature, and writing. She believes the education world can benefit greatly from the meditation world - mindfulness and self-compassion are key! In her free time she loves reading and writing, music, baking, yoga, dance, animals, and exploring new cities. She currently lives in Chicago, Illinois. For more information on tutors like Stephanie, click here.