Building Empathy to Prevent Bullying

My fifth grade class was about to welcome a new student—I’ll call him Mark—who had a number of medical challenges. For instance, he had a feeding tube, and he suffered from uncontrollable and severe flatulence as a result. It was November, and we were his fourth school of the year. He’d left the first three after being tormented by other students.

A recent conversation with my friend and colleague Caltha Crowe led me to think about Mark, and about how important it is for teachers to help students develop empathy and perspective-taking skills.

You see, I was sure my students could do better by Mark, but I didn’t take it for granted that they knew how. Before he joined us, I held a class meeting to help prepare them.

I began the meeting by telling the students about Mark and his condition. Then, using fifth grade vernacular, I asked them to think about a time when they had suffered from gas. Predictably, many had stories to share, including lots of gross details, descriptions of the lengths they or family members would go to cover up incidents, blame others, and so forth. After sharing these common experiences and some laughs, one of my students asked, “Ms. Valentine, what does this have to do with our new student?”

I explained the digestive problems that a condition like Mark’s caused. I asked them to put themselves in his shoes: “Imagine how bad it would be if you never got to eat food—that means no pizza, no candy, no French fries.” I paused to let that sink in, and then said, “Now imagine that whenever you did get nourishment—through a tube—you’d have gas, and there would be nothing you could do about it.”

The expressions on my students’ faces showed me that they were beginning to feel the empathy I was hoping for. I gave them the last crucial piece of information—I told them about Mark’s experiences at prior schools. They understood. They had put themselves in Mark’s shoes and were ready to help.

“So, what are we going to do when Mark farts?” I asked.

“We can’t laugh!” they said. One student suggested a solution her mom used at home—“When my dad does that, my mom sprays air freshener.”

“Hmm,” I replied, “How will Mark feel if every time this happens we rush towards him with a can of air spray?”

“Not so good,” she said.

We considered other ideas, but finally decided that when and if the event happened, whoever was closest to the window would just go over, open it as discreetly as possible, and get back to whatever we were doing.

Mark joined us, and the plan seemed to work. In fact, I knew that Mark felt comfortable in our classroom community when, a few weeks later, he turned as he was leaving to go somewhere with his nurse and said: “I just want to tell you, in case you want to use the time while I’m out to discuss my farting, I think the window thing is working really well.”

But, that is not the end of the story! Soon afterwards, another new student joined us. Things were going so well with the window strategy that I didn’t even think about talking to this new student about Mark. So, on his first day, when Mark had his first instance of flatulence, the new student laughed.

Classmates sitting close to Mark were visibly horrified. I heard one immediately speak up. “We don’t do that in here,” he said to the new boy. “We’ll explain later, but we don’t do that.”

Mark beamed. The new student was taken aback, but later, after hearing the explanation from a classmate, he seemed to understand. He never laughed at Mark again.

When I shared this story with Caltha, who is writing a book about  how to prevent bullying, she told me that many studies show that children who engage in bullying behaviors lack empathy for their victims. Sometimes we teachers can help avoid that situation. To do so, we need to be aware of our students’ challenges and the ways they may be misunderstood or mistreated by classmates. Then, we have to figure out a way to wade in and build empathy before problems start—even when it means discussing uncomfortable topics or having conversations that are hard.

Tina Valentine worked as a Responsive Classroom consultant from 2009 to 2012. Before that, she served in the Springfield, Massachusetts public schools as an administrator, special education teacher, and test coordinator.


Tags: Bullying, Empathy