Looking to Teach Empathy? Invite an Animal into the Classroom!

Empathy is the ability to understand and share another person’s experiences and emotion. While perhaps not overtly written into state standards or published curriculum, empathy is at the heart of a strong classroom community, a core skill in internalizing literature and history, and critical in creating the next generation of responsible global citizens.

While some people are naturally more empathetic, research has found that empathy is a skill that can and should be learned and cultivated. Many teachers naturally infuse empathy into their classes each day: demonstrating patience, modeling kindness, and exploring the definitions of “feelings” and “fairness.”  Becoming more intentional with teaching empathy is necessary as we consider students growth beyond the classroom. As the emphasis on teaching empathy grows, fortunately, so do the possibilities of incorporating it into the classroom.

Animals are a great way to make empathy a more focused and intentional presence in the classroom. Not only do animals teach responsibility, planning, and problem-solving, but they allow us to model empathetic behavior. Animals provide a means to see beyond ourselves to others, and through practicing the act of kindness and learning to gently handle the animals, students are better equipped to care for their peers. It also brings a welcome shift in the energy of a class; as Brinda Jegatheesan, an expert in the soothing bond between humans and animals tells The Washingtonian, “learning with pets adds an element of compassion to an education system that often rewards tests scores over character.”

Looking for ways to include animals into your classroom?  You might look into an animal reading program, where students can improve their reading skills by reading to a non-judgmental furry friend.  You can even apply for a grant from The Pet Care Trust, a charitable foundation that helps classrooms subsidize the purchase of a class pet in order to “make pets a part of everyone’s life.”  You could also invite your students to share their pets on show-and-tell days, allowing them to demonstrate and model their own empathy. Or on your next field trip to the zoo, encourage the students to unofficially “adopt” their favorite animal.

The best news of all?  When you include a furry (or not-so-furry) friend in the world of learning, it adds to your tool kit of ways to calm, redirect, or engage your more fidgety students. Trish Halonen, a Science teacher in Beaverton, Oregon, will strategically place students near the fish bowl where they can peacefully observe the fish when they need a brain break. She also started putting her bearded dragon on her shoulder as a class signal, silent but impossible to miss, that it was time to give her their attention. Read here about other therapeutic benefits of animals in the classroom.

For further reading on animals, empathy, and the classroom, you can check out the following articles and blog posts:

  • Teaching Empathy: Are We Teaching Content or Students? (Edutopia.org)
  • How Pets Teach Children Empathy and Compassion (Everydayhealth.com)
  • Understanding Empathy in order to Teach Empathy (rubicon.com)
  • How We’re Mapping, and Driving, Social-Emotional Learning (rubicon.com)

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