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Instilling Compassion in Students


Compassion is foundational to all we do in character education. Go ahead, instill a strong work ethic, a passion for knowledge, and even social skills. Without compassion, these traits can propel a dangerous narcissist to the head of company or a country. Hitler worked hard, studied hard, and knew enough social skills to initially fool the world's leaders into believing his intentions were benevolent. The success of character education hinges on our ability to instill compassion in our students.


This article reveals what we know from research about the formation of character in children. For each point I'm in debt to Dr. Janice Cohn, Chief of Consultation and Education at the Department of Psychiatry, Newark Beth Israel Medical Center, who wrote the wonderful book, Raising Compassionate, Courageous Children in a Violent World (Longstreet Press, Marietta, GA). I followed her outline of chapter one and used her titles. Buy it. Read it. Apply it. Pass it on. 


The present article attempts to take the fruit of her research and apply it to those wanting to instill character in teens through our schools.   



Compassion Builder #1: Show Them They Are Loved and Cherished

We annul our teaching on compassion if we fail to treat our students with compassion. On the positive side, showing compassion may be as simple as asking how they feel after an illness or how they're doing after a death in the family.  Although we can't be mom or dad to the 100 + students who sit in our classes each day, a few kind words delivered at a time of need can mean the world to a hurting student who gets consolation from nowhere else. Keep a stack of cheap, encouraging cards in your desk drawer. Try to get rid of them each month. 


A teacher at an alternative school in Florida discovered that one of his students had never been taken fishing by his father. The teacher took him fishing. He saw the young man years later and found what a difference he'd made in his life. We need to constantly ask ourselves, "How can I show these students that I care?"


On the negative side, never punish by withholding affection. When that disruptive girl who embarrassed you in front of the class returns from detention, don't hold a grudge, shunning her by refusing to look her in the eye or holding a friendly conversation. Our affection shouldn't be a prize to be won. To inspire compassion in others, we must give it with no strings attached. Says Dr. Mark Barnett, an expert on developing empathy in children,

"They need to feel secure in the fact that they are cared for and loved despite their mistakes and misbehaviors. This makes it possible for children to develop an inner security that their own emotional needs will be taken care of. It's only then that they can learn to be responsive to the emotional needs of others." (1)


(Further recommended reading on loving teens: How to Really Love Your Teenager, by Dr. Ross Campbell (out of print, but available through Amazon.com); The Five Love Languages of Teenagers, Gary Chapman.)



Compassion Builder #2: Give Guidelines for Acceptable and Unacceptable Behavior 

Some teachers excel at loving both the lovely and unlovely, but falsely assume that their compassionate behavior alone will inspire students to show compassion to one another. Dr. Cohn notes that 

"parents who are loving but permissive and who do not set limits on their children's behavior toward others have children who tend to be more selfish and less inclined to help others than are youngsters whose parents provide more discipline." (2)


Sadly, many teens view a compassionate teacher as a pushover, someone to despise for his weakness and to control for their own benefit. To keep order in a classroom and to teach compassion, defiant, disruptive students need to be verbally confronted and disciplined in such a way that all realize that such behavior will not be tolerated. 


In one class I took an anonymous survey to inquire about how I could improve as a teacher. I was astounded to discover that their greatest annoyance was other students who distracted them. I'd have never guessed this from trying to read their expressions and reactions to distractions. They would probably have never confronted the annoying students or acted like it was a problem. It was up to me as the one in charge to keep order. 


The first thing I did was to let the class know that they told me they were annoyed by disruptive behavior. Once the disruptive students knew that their fellow students didn't like their behavior, they had more motivation to straighten up! I'm not loving my class if I allow a few students irritate the rest. Sometimes, love must be tough. 


Students need to know clearly what's allowed and what will not be tolerated in class. For example, a student may not treat another student with disrespect in my class. By not tolerating disrespect, many students will learn what comprises disrespect and will learn that I feel strongly about it. 


Discipline for those who defiantly refuse to treat others with respect can be administered in a way that's consistent with compassion. Say to the student, "I'm not sending giving you detention because I don't care about you. I really do. But I care for you too much to allow you to get away with such behavior and risk growing up treating people that way. Further, I care about the other students as well, the ones your distracting from learning. I've got to keep order in my class." 



Compassion Builder #3: Help Them Understand the Consequences of Their Actions 

Don't assume that students understand how their uncaring words and actions impact others. Spell it out for them. "The reason I don't allow you to ridicule classmates for the way they dress has nothing to do with the fact that I'm an old geezer who shops at the Salvation Army. It has everything to do with the fact that destructive words often haunt people's minds for decades. Even when they act like they don't care, they're often hurting as if they were cut with a knife. You may say it in fun; but they feel embarrassed, hurt, angry and rejected."


Even popular entertainers such as Drew Barrymore and Janette Jackson tell of how the taunts of others during their school years continue to haunt them. Verbal cuts hurt people deeply, whether they be students or teachers. 


I believe I was a Junior in High School, sitting in a history class, when we began to notice to our great delight that our teacher's fly was open. We tried not to snicker, but it was hard to hold a straight face. Finally, the teacher walked into the hallway, was gone for a moment and then confronted us. With a facial expression and tone of voice that mixed personal embarrassment with his disappointment in us as students, he said one sentence: "I only wish that one of you would have had the decency let me know."


It would have been much easier to be sent to the office, or to have gotten a bad grade for the day. But that expression, those words - they shame me till this day, ensuring that I'll never again amuse myself at someone else's expense.  His response helped me to understand that teachers have feelings too, feelings that can be hurt as a result of my inconsiderate behavior.  



Compassion Builder #4: Help Them Put Themselves in Others' Places 

To empathize, we must learn to feel as other people feel and see life through their eyes. Rather than simply demanding kind words, or else..., ask students how they felt when someone laughed at them, called them names or made them look bad. Ask if it ever occurred to them that by our words and actions we can cause others to feel the same way. Students don't automatically make that connection. Once they remember their own feelings of rejection from the past and connect these feelings with the way others feel, they are beginning to empathize.   


If a student is absent due to an extended illness, ask students to explore their own concerns when they were once ill for an extended time. Perhaps they feared they'd never catch up their school work. One student might volunteer to make sure the sick student gets her assignments knows what she missed. Perhaps they remember feeling  lonely. Pass around a card for everyone to sign and mail it to the student. Acts of compassion happen when we take even 30 seconds to explore the feelings and circumstances of others. 



Compassion Builder #5: Primarily Discipline Through Reasoning 

Some overly strict, authoritarian adults tend to lay down laws with no explanation, then demand obedience and punish disobedience. They may achieve an orderly classroom. Orderly, that is, on the surface. In such an authoritarian environment, external conformity to rules is achieved at the expense of internalizing character. Once the kids are out of sight, they'll revert to their selfish behavior. 


Giving reasons for rules and reminding students of these reasons helps to internalize compassion. If a student thinks a rule is stupid, briefly discuss the rationale behind the rule. Hear out his side and he might be more open to hear out yours. If the rule is indeed useless, have enough humility to drop the rule. If it's useful, students need to know why. In the end, even if they still disagree, they need to honor your final decision. But at least now they know the reason behind the rule. 

"When students are given explanations for household rules and are allowed to voice their opinions, and even disagree (though the parents have the last word), research suggests that they become more adept at exercising social skills, relating to others, and coping with life's problems." (3)


And when voicing your stand on an important issue such as verbal or physical abuse, don't be afraid of showing your emotion with your voice and body language. Sensing how strongly you feel can impact the intensity of their moral convictions.  



Compassion Builder #6: Show Them By Example How to Treat Others 

If we fail to "practice what we preach," students will believe our actions over our words. We need to keep our eyes open for ways to demonstrate compassion. When we fail to show compassion (and we all do), tell the offended student that you're sorry. Tell the entire class if all were involved. Students tend to be very forgiving of our failures if we're honest about them. They just need to know that, although we've not arrived,  we're sincerely passionate about compassion and want to keep growing. 



Compassion Builder #7: Give Them Frequent Opportunities to Perform Small Acts of Kindness 

I'll never forget attending a summer camp where a middle school girl got the worse case of sunburn I'd ever seen. At the prompting of their counselor, some guys put together a card for her and signed it, a small act of kindness for a girl who felt terrible and probably needed some encouragement. I'd have forgotten about the incident had the girl not pulled me aside years later and showed me the card, which she still kept in her pocket book. I was amazed!


At my 20th high school reunion, I saw an old friend who'd moved out of town our 9th grade year. He told me that he'd never forgotten how I came over to his house 23 years ago to help him move. He wanted to thank me. Again, I was astounded at the impact of a simple act of kindness.

Our students need to hear our stories and share their own stories of how small acts of kindness powerfully impact lives. Motivate them and give them options rather than coerce them to go along with your ideas. Offer them small, frequent opportunities to impact the lives of others. 

"The research shows that people who initially become involved in helping behavior, intending to help in a very limited way, often unexpectedly become committed to what they are doing and end up helping in very extensive ways." (4)


(For specific ideas on acts of kindness, click here.)



Compassion Builder #8: Use Everyday Moments to Foster Compassion and Caring 

Always be on the alert for teachable moments, such as when a local or highly publicized national/international tragedy is on everyone's minds. If a natural disaster leaves people homeless or a schoolmate loses a family member, many students feel a surge of empathy but need to know how to direct it. Brainstorm with your students how you might help. Then, get involved.  



Compassion Builder #9: Help Them See the Commonalities Between Themselves and Others.

"...children respond more empathetically to people whom they perceive as being similar in some way to themselves than they do to people they regard as being different."(5)

This insight shows us the need to break down the barriers that divide students, often accentuated by stereotyping and labeling. While popular media perpetuates the stereotypical airhead cheerleader, callous jock and arrogant preppie, let a couple of unfortunate personal experiences reinforce these images and the transition from mythical stereotype to entrenched paradigm will be complete. All jocks may appear callous and all preppies arrogant to a pair of alternative eyes. Alternatives may all appear dangerous through a cheerleader's eyes. With so many students unfairly caricatured by popular culture and limited experience, it's difficult to empathize with across the seemingly impenetrable lines that divide cultures and subcultures. How can we help students break through the stereotypes to discover that their similarities are greater than their differences?


First, we can share examples from our own lives that defy common stereotypes - the cheerleader who went to law school, the jocks who go on mission trips and the alternatives who now work for the government. 


Second, we can provide opportunities for students to get to know each other. Crowd breakers done over a period of time can help. Once the alternative and preppie realize that they like some of the same bands and struggle with some of the same issues at home, they begin to realize that their labels don't define who they are. Once the jock and gang member realize that they share some of the same hopes and fears, they're more likely to treat each other with respect. 


Third, well, we all need to keep brainstorming on this one. Whether it's movie clips from "The Breakfast Club" or testimonies from those who found best friends in differing subcultures, we must continually help students break through stereotypes if we want to be able to empathize with one another.  

Compassion Builder #10: Emphasize Their Power to Positively Affect Others' Lives.


Parents tend to show more concern with correcting bad behavior than instilling and reinforcing compassionate behavior. By doing this we miss turning our children on to one of the most exciting and rewarding aspects of life: positively impacting the lives of those around us.  


I like to tell stories about famous people who's lives were radically changed by some simple words and actions of people who cared. Successful actor/director Mel Gibson may have never gotten into acting had it not been for the encouragement of his big sister. As an American teen growing up in Australia, Mel hated school and hated being teased for his accent. He became a loser who constantly found trouble and skipped school to hang out at the pool hall.  After high school, he did odd jobs like waxing surfboards and bagging groceries. His life was headed nowhere.


But Mel's sister cared too much to let him waste his life. Although he'd never considered acting, she encouraged him to audition at the prestigious National Institute of Dramatic Arts in Sydney. And her encouragement went past mere words. She paid his audition fee and helped him prepare for the audition. He got his first part as "Romeo'' and the rest is history. 


Had it not been for the encouragement of his sister, Mel Gibson could have been waxing surfboards and bagging groceries to this day. She changed the entire course of his life by forgetting her personal interests long enough to encourage her brother. What could our schools be like if we could inspire more "people blossomers" like Mel's sister? What if, instead of walking into the lunchroom thinking "who can I impress today," they instead begin to ask, "whose life might I change today?" 



Compassion Builder #11: Don't Stereotype Girls' and Boys' Capacity for Empathy

Although girls tend to think of themselves as more empathetic than boys, the latest research shows no strong difference in their actual actions and feelings in this regard. While boys may not be eager to label themselves with words like "compassionate," many of their helpful actions could be defined as such. So, let's not perpetuate the myth that caring is for girls. 


"Rambo" showed great empathy and compassion by risking his life to rescue POW's, but why does it seem strange to speak of him as compassionate? I suppose it's a guy thing. Many of us care about our fellow students, but PLEASE don't think you're doing us a social favor by calling us "courteous" or "loving," as if we want to be known as the "Mother Teresa" of our school. Perhaps by emphasizing the benevolent acts of whoever they respect as "real men" or "cool musicians," we can challenge them to be more open about their compassionate acts.  



Compassion Builder #12: Explicitly Condemn Acts of Hatred and Violence

"The research indicates that when parents and other adults fail to explicitly condemn acts of hatred and violence, children tend to misinterpret this silence as tacit acceptance or indifference."(6)


It seems natural to assume that all teens share our horror concerning hate crimes. Yet, constant bombardment with media violence often dulls our moral senses.  It's high time that we move past merely clarifying what students morally feel about acts of senseless destruction. When premeditated violence causes untold misery in the real world, tell it like it is: "These acts were wrong! People are suffering because of these atrocities  - people who hurt like we hurt and have feelings like we have feelings. I'm horrified! How can we keep this from happening again? How can we help those who were impacted?"




Consider using Dr. Cohn's titles as a checklist to evaluate your classes each week for a month. We know from other schools that compassion, shown by respectful behavior and lived out through random acts of kindness, can radically change the school environment. Perhaps your classroom will be where it all starts on your campus.



Copyright November, 2003 by Steve Miller, Legacy Educational Resources.

  1. Dr. Mark Barnette, Kansas State University, from his telephone interview with Dr. Janice Cohn, June, 1995.
  2. Raising Compassionate, Courageous Children in a Violent World, by Dr. Janice Cohn (Longstreet Press, Inc, Marietta, GA, 1996) p. 21
  3. Cohn, opt.cit., from D. Baumrind, "Current Patterns of Parental Authority," Developmental Psychology Monographs, no. 4: 1-103; N. Eisenberg, et al. "The Relation of Empathy Related Emotions and Maternal Practices to Children's Comforting Behavior," Journal of Experimental Child Psychology 55 (1993): 130-50; M.L. Hoffman, "Moral Internalization, Parental Power, and the Nature of Parent-Child Interaction," Developmental Psychology 11 (1975): 228-37.
  4. Dr. Ervin Staub, University of Massachusetts, from his telephone interview with Dr. Janice Cohn, July, 1995.
  5. Dr. Janice Cohn, Ibid., p. 44, summarizing a finding by Dr. Mark Barnette in his "comprehensive review of research conducted on children and empathy" - M.A. Barnett, "Empathy and Related Responses in Children," in Empathy and its Development, eds. N. Eisenberg and J. Strayer (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987) 146-62.
  6. Cohn, Ibid., p. 52, drawing from "Studying the Pivotal Role of Bystanders," The New York Times, 22 June 1993