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February 1, 2022

Empathy as a Tool for Equity

Committing to antiracism in schools requires educators to harness empathy at the individual, classroom, and school level.
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“Part of our formal education should be training in empathy. Imagine how different the world would be if, in fact, it were ‘reading, writing, arithmetic, empathy.’”
Neil deGrasse Tyson
The roots of educational injustice run deep. For over 50 years, educators have seen opportunity gaps drive achievement gaps. We watched as the COVID-19 global pandemic exposed the digital divide. We have conclusive evidence that not only does the discipline gap persist, but it falls under the broader umbrella of an experience gap, which reflects disparities in students’ sense of belonging and shared community (Gregory & Mosely, 2004; Ladson-Billings, 2006). Each of these gaps signals that our current educational practices and systems are not yet effectively supporting all students.
As education reforms have become increasingly focused on equity, empathy has emerged as a promising tool for change. For teachers, empathy can increase awareness of the experiences faced by marginalized groups and strengthen their relationships with students across lines of difference. For school, district, and state leaders, empathy can help establish norms that promote inclusion and create more equitable learning environments. It is important to recognize that although we often discuss racism at an interpersonal level, for antiracist change to be effective in educational settings, it must also occur at the individual, institutional, and structural levels.
Many research studies have demonstrated how empathy and equity operate hand in hand. For example, a teacher’s ability to empathize with students’ life experiences has been found to shape their approach and response to problem behaviors (Wink, LaRusso & Smith, 2021). When teachers actively empathize with students, they are more likely to build trust, demonstrate instructional flexibility, and avoid power struggles—all of which reinforce positive student-teacher relationships. In a meta-analysis of these relationships, teacher empathy actually emerged as the strongest predictor of academic, affective, and behavioral outcomes for students (Cornelius-White, 2007).
But how can educators leverage empathy as part of an anti-racist approach? Research suggests it can be used to shift educator mindsets, change classroom practices, and institutionalize policies that reinforce racial equity.

Taking Action at the Individual Level

One of the most defining features of humanity is our capacity for empathy, which often serves as a key motivator for prosocial acts and inclusive behavior (Preston & De Waal, 2002). Yet research on empathy has revealed three important findings: 1) empathy is not automatically activated in every situation that calls for it; 2) when empathy requires effort, we find ways to avoid it; and 3) racial prejudice affects how and when we empathetically respond to those who identify as the same vs. a different race than us (Cameron et al., 2019; Chiao & Mathur, 2010; Szuster & Jarymowicz, 2020). This means we tend to avoid empathy when it leads to negative emotions, and we are more likely to empathize with individuals who are similar to us (Schumann et al., 2014; Weisz & Zaki 2018).
There are, however, ways we can intentionally combat these barriers to empathy. The following strategies drawn from antiracist teaching and learning frameworks describe different ways to see past perceived differences, recognize common humanity, and accept social responsibility.

Unlearn racism and learn antiracism.

The act of confronting and undoing racism in our own lives begins with self-guided learning. To promote ongoing self-awareness and self-reflection, consider reading books that draw connections between past and present racism and prompt direct action for advancing antiracism (e.g., Ibram X. Kendi’s How to be an Antiracist or Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility). Alternatively, you may seek out podcasts, films, TV shows, or news sources that challenge your existing notions of race and culture, help you unpack your own biases, and offer opportunities to practice empathizing with others across difference. It is important, however, to be weary of “quick-fix” behavioral science concepts such as the promise of “grit” or “power posing” to overcome entrenched inequalities in schools (Singal, 2021).

Engage in effective allyship.

An easy trap to fall into is taking on the title of “ally” without first learning what distinguishes “performative allyship” from support that is meaningfully aligned with an antiracist agenda. To become more effective allies in anti-racist work requires valuing someone else’s struggle as if it were your own, even if you have not experienced it yourself. We must do more listening than speaking, de-center ourselves to allow room for voices that are often silenced, transfer the benefits of our own privilege to those without (e.g., when asked to serve in a leadership role, consider recommending someone from an underrepresented group who is an equally good or better fit), and most importantly, recognize that allyship is a process and there is always more to learn.

Root out hidden bias.

Individuals can be consciously committed to egalitarianism and antiracism, yet still hold and act on implicit biases (Staats, 2016). The good news is that by increasing our awareness of bias, we can limit its impact on our thoughts, decisions, and behaviors (Dasgupta, 2013). For instance, the practice of individuating refers to replacing stereotypes we hold about a particular racial or cultural group with more personal characteristics about individuals within that stereotyped group. Some educators rely on learner profiles as a way to document the skills, hobbies, or interests that a student shares. Similarly, home visits have also been found to be an effective way of interrupting implicit bias processes (Sheldon & Junh, 2015).

To be able to interrupt policies and practices that, explicitly or implicitly, perpetuate unequal outcomes for today’s students, we must leverage empathy.

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Taking Action at the Classroom Level

An educator’s individual antiracist work reinforces their ability to lead with empathy within the classroom community as well. Evidence strongly suggests that positive and respectful student-teacher relationships have positive outcomes for both students and teachers (Kim, 2021). Unsurprisingly, healthy peer-to-peer relationships also have positive outcomes for youth (Oberle & Schonert-Reichl, 2013). Empathy is a key lever in building those supportive and affirming relationships.

Strengthen relationships with and among your students.

Think of your closest relationships. Often, the better you know and understand someone, the more you can ensure they feel seen, heard, and valued. One way to get to know your students as individuals is to create a survey asking them questions about themselves. Let your students know that you have taken the time to learn from their responses and highlight what you have in common. Whether you both have the same number of siblings or root for the same sports team, finding those initial points of connection can help seed empathy between you and your students, strengthen your relationships, and help lower achievement gaps (Gehlbach, et al., 2016).

Practice empathetic communication.

Moving one step beyond active listening, empathetic responding means seeking to first understand someone else before being understood yourself, creating the space for opposing views, and validating a person’s experiences in a way that elicits openness, strengthens emotional connection, and establishes trust. For example, “I heard you say you often feel singled out. Can you tell me more about a time when you felt that way?” Once a person shares their perspective, the goal is to reflect on and highlight their emotions: “What I’m hearing is that you felt angry at me and embarrassed in front of others when I brought up your missed homework assignment.” Listen carefully for corrections and ask questions: “How can we have a better conversation next time?” It is also important to demonstrate honesty, acknowledging your own discomfort without invalidating their experience: “This is hard for me to hear because I don’t like to see myself that way, but I am grateful we have an opportunity to improve our communication.” By deliberately slowing things down to seek understanding, we avoid relying on automatic responses to interactions that can trigger implicit bias beliefs.

Model empathy in your own interactions.

One of the most effective ways to cultivate a culture of empathy is by taking advantage of any opportunity to model empathy in the classroom. This means breaking down interactions into steps and describing your rationale aloud so that students can recognize your emotions and feel safe to express their own. For example: “I am feeling frustrated that this activity is not going smoothly. I am going to pause and take a few deep breaths. This helps me to clear my head so I don’t rush to conclusions or make false assumptions before we all problem-solve together.” Additionally, it is important to build in time for reflection at the end of every day or week  to identify strategies that are working and/or to troubleshoot areas of improvement.

Integrate discussions about equity and oppression.

Systemic racism in society cannot be ignored in the classroom, particularly when educators are charged with preparing students to become socially responsible global citizens. According to Dena Simmons, teaching social-emotional learning competencies in the absence of broader context risks turning these lessons into “white supremacy with a hug”. For younger students, teachers can read books by writers that address issues of inequity to help spur conversations about differences, race, and injustice. Older students can access free virtual resources to learn about, celebrate, and honor historically marginalized groups (e.g., virtual exhibits at museums, Flipgrid virtual events, game-based apps) or they can apply a more critical lens to their own communities (for example, ask students to investigate whether any of the local street names are reflective of a racist past). Fostering dialogue about race can help students make sense of their own experiences and strengthen their empathy for those who differ from them.

Taking Action at the School Level

As with all organizational imperatives, a schoolwide shift to an equity-centered educational system requires laying the groundwork for challenging conversations and committing to continuous growth. Our current call-out culture often leads to public shaming—a highly ineffectual motivator for change. School leaders must create a space where critical discussion can unfold and where mistakes are considered a part of learning.

Call in, rather than call out.

Calling in” is an approach that professor and activist Loretta Ross describes as “calling out, but with love” and we would argue, with empathy (Ross, 2020). Say, for example, a fellow educator uses a word with a racist connotation.  “Calling in,” would be saying:  
“I think when you described the renovations to your ‘master bedroom’ you were simply referring to the largest bedroom in your home. I learned recently that the term ‘master bedroom’ is actually rooted in American slavery and thus evokes that history. I sometimes have a hard time catching myself when I use words that have been folded into our vocabulary that unconsciously speak to the history of slavery and racism.”
This approach allows individuals to learn without feeling singled out, and fosters a sense of trust and connection between the person calling in and the person being called in. It is important to note, however, that calling in is a taxing endeavor and those who are oppressed are under no obligation to educate others. It is particularly useful, however, if you are someone from a privileged group who can do the work of calling in others.

Open with vulnerability.

Publicly and honestly acknowledging personal biases provides an opportunity to model courage and authenticity, foster constructive racial dialogues, and encourage others to lean into discomfort when discussing topics of racism and white privilege. These conversations use empathy to acknowledge and alleviate fears of misspeaking, sounding racist, or unintentionally doing harm. Consider strategies that uncover shared concerns, such as asking everyone to finish sentence stems like, “The biggest mistake I worry about making when talking about racism is…”

Bring in evidence.

Share data disparities with your school community, using stories to humanize the numbers, and engage in transparent dialogue about the resources, policies, grading, and discipline practices that are perpetuating inequities. For instance, according to a 2018 study conducted by the National Women’s Law Center, racial and gender disparities in how students are disciplined for dress code violations can cause Black students to fall behind academically. Keeping this in mind, educators can first try to imagine being unfairly targeted based on wearing the clothes they like. Then, they can move to action: How can this policy be revised to be more inclusive for all?

Interrupting Inequities Across School Communities

Empathy can play a pivotal role in deconstructing the internal, relational, and systemic structures that create barriers to equitable educational settings. To be able to interrupt policies and practices that, explicitly or implicitly, perpetuate unequal outcomes for today’s students, we must leverage empathy. That will require us to shift mindsets at the individual level, strengthen relationships and cultivate community at the classroom level, and embed equitable norms, structures, and policies at the school level.

Cameron, C. D., Hutcherson, C. A., Ferguson, A. M., Scheffer, J. A., Hadjiandreou, E., &

Inzlicht, M. (2019). Empathy is hard work: People choose to avoid empathy because of

its cognitive costs. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 148(6), 962–976.

Cornelius-White, J. (2007). Learner-centered teacher-student relationships are effective: A meta-analysis. Review of Educational Research, 77(1), 113-143.

Dasgupta, N. (2013). Implicit attitudes and beliefs adapt to situations: A decade of research on the malleability of implicit prejudice, stereotypes, and the self-concept. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 47, 233-279.

Gehlbach, H., Brinkworth, M. E., Hsu, L., King, A., McIntyre, J., & Rogers, T. (2016). Creating birds of similar feathers: Leveraging similarity to improve teacher-student relationships and academic achievement. Journal of Educational Psychology, 108(3), 342–352.

Gregory, A., & Mosely, P. M. (2004). The discipline gap: Teachers' views on the over-representation of African American students in the discipline system. Equity & Excellence in Education, 37(1), 18-30.

Ladson-Billings, G. (2006). From the achievement gap to the education debt: Understanding achievement in U.S. schools. Educational Researcher, 35(7), 3-12.

Oberle, E., & Schonert-Reichl, K. (2013). Relations among peer acceptance, inhibitory control, and math achievement in early adolescence. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 34, 45-51.

Preston, S. D., & De Waal, F. B. (2002). Empathy: Its ultimate and proximate bases. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 25(1), 1-20.

Singal, J. (2021). The Quick Fix: Why Fad Psychology Can't Cure Our Social Ills. Picador.

Szuster, A., & Jarymowicz, M. (2020). Human empathy of automatic vs. reflective origin: Diverse attributes and regulative consequences. New Ideas in Psychology, 56, 100748.

Sheldon, S. B., & Jung, S. B. (2015). The family engagement partnership student outcome evaluation. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University.

Staats, C. (2016). Understanding implicit bias: What educators should know. American Educator, 39(4), 29-43.

Wink, M. N., LaRusso, M. D., & Smith, R. L. (2021). Teacher empathy and students with problem behaviors: Examining teachers' perceptions, responses, relationships, and burnout. Psychology in the Schools.

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