What can we learn from corona-virus situation? #3 – The importance of empathy in schools

The impact of the pandemic on the education systems across the globe is immense for numerous reasons. On one hand, most countries in the world have closed down schools and moved to some type of online learning which will surely impact the quality of learning but at the same time impacts the home lives of teachers, students and their parents.

We @NEPC hope to contribute to the discussion with this thematic series that brings different perspectives on the current situation by some of the NEPC experts. We asked them a few questions that will help us in shedding a light on this unexpected situation and that will help us in drawing some reflections from it.

In this issue, we reflect with Iris Marušić, senior researcher at Institute for Social Research in Zagreb – Croatia, about the importance of solidarity and empathy and on the crucial role that schools have in supporting it.

What is there for us during this time when our world is shaken, when our psychological landscape is full of uncertainty?

Our daily life has become very reduced but at the same time more demanding than it was just several weeks ago. Our future plans are postponed, our wishes revolve around simple things that we took for granted just days ago. Our social life has dramatically changed. However, in this period of uncertainty there are things that we can rely on, that can get us through difficult times. Empathy is one of them as relations with our family, our friends, our co-workers have become more important than ever. Now we need empathy for ourselves and for others.

In the emergencies, we often assist to great expressions of solidarity… What can be done through education to keep the emphatic approach after the emergencies are over?

Empathy is our ability to take the perspective of others, to see them and acknowledge them as they are, to show compassion. This is our innate ability that should be supported and cultivated, particularly during times like this. The ability to empathise with others can be enhanced by at first learning how to be self-emphatic, to be aware of our own thoughts and feelings and accept them without judgement. From this position we can be authentic when relating to other people, accepting and supporting them. Our capacity for empathy, for self-acceptance and acceptance of others can be developed throughout our lives. It can be supported in schools that are typically a place for cognitive, much less for emotional development. It can be nurtured in our families, in both children and adults. Children naturally have the capacity for empathy, but that doesn’t mean they develop it on their own. They learn how to notice, listen, and care by watching and listening to adults and peers, and they learn from others why empathy is important. At this moment, when children are not physically present at their schools, school community that cares and nurtures a sense of belonging is even more important. School teachers and counsellors, now virtually present in their pupils’ lives, could devise strategies of supporting the sense of community that cares about everyone. They could be virtual models of care and support for others. They could introduce and encourage talking about the feelings, about fears and worries, about things that we miss at the moment, but also the positive emotions we can nurture. They could help students to display care, compassion and acceptance for themselves and for each other at the present times. Now we have knowledge and experiences embedded in programs for social and emotional development. Many resources are at hand. The moment we are deprived of many things that have been important to us until recently, we can strengthen our empathy for ourselves and others. It can empower us for the times to come in a changed world.

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