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Tips for Building Empathy and Inclusion in the Classroom

by Colleen Keiser

Our country is hurting right now, which means our students are hurting. Schools, which are often a safe place of refuge, are unavailable. Educators must begin to prepare for students’ return, whatever that will look like. When we do return, it will be more important than ever to ensure that we’re prepared to meet the needs of all students physically, emotionally, and socially. This will not be a one-size-fits all-approach (it never is), and we must be ready to create (or recreate) those safe spaces using empathy and inclusion within our classrooms.

One persistent theme in social emotional learning (SEL) is that the SEL skill set and emotional intelligence of the adults guiding and supporting our students is critical. The most significant place to begin creating an empathetic and inclusionary classroom is within ourselves (Brackett, 2019).

As educators we set the tone for the environment in our classrooms. Students look to us as they make choices in how to treat each other, how to accept self-responsibility, and how to participate in a caring community. Whether educators realize it or not, students are always watching, observing, and noticing adult behavior.

This means, first and foremost, to check yourself. What implicit biases do you carry and how do they impact your interactions and relationships with students? Where do you fall on the empathy scale? Remember, "biases are the stories we make up about people before we learn who they are," per diversity and inclusion expert Verna Myers, and they are especially apparent "when things are high-risk, or you have to make quick decisions." (Cho, 2016, paragraph 16). Take time now to ask yourself these questions and begin growing before we return to the classroom. (Check out: How to Build Empathy and Strengthen School Community)

Beyond self-reflection and building our self-awareness muscles, what other practical tips can you begin using to create a classroom that reflects inclusion and empathy? Here are a few ideas.

  1. Always use opportunities to represent valued individuals who have made an impact or contribution in all subject areas of the curriculum, ensuring you are using examples from all abilities, ethnicities, and cultures, most especially marginalized groups. Consider:It is never a student’s job to educate others how to be culturally aware. Students are in school to learn and participate -- educators are there to facilitate the learning and should be responsible for leading the opportunities for awareness (Atkins & Oglesby, 2019). 
  2. Look around your classroom. Does it represent you, or does it represent the blend of students that you teach? Will students feel represented when they walk in? Browse through your classroom library. Does it represent books that you enjoy, or does it represent class interests and characters that students can relate to based on abilities, ethnicity, or culture?  (Check out: Checklist for the Inclusive Classroom, adapted from A Guide to Effective Literacy Instruction, Grades 4 to 6 – Volume Two Assessment, 2006, pp. 5–8.)
  3. Make sure you are working from and encouraging a growth mindset. There is always something new to learn from another person. You are not the only teacher in the classroom. Look at problems or conflicts with friendliness and curiosity rather a rigid stance. (Check out: Developing a Growth Mindset)

Creating a classroom that is both empathetic and inclusionary is not something you can buy at the store. It begins with you, the educator. Right now, we are all being called to manifest our best selves. Are you ready?

Colleen Keiser is a school counselor in Cypress-Fairbanks Independent School District, located in Houston. She has spent 15 years as an educator. In addition to counseling, she has taught PreK -1st, 3rd, and 5th grade language arts, as well as ESL and special education classes. She is completing a doctorate in general education with a focus on leadership and social-emotional learning at Northcentral University.