Some kids do better in one-on-one instruction than in groups. One student of mine, Adam, was great with me in piano lessons, but had a tough time in group classes. He interrupted me constantly, drawing attention to himself, making inappropriate jokes, and literally bouncing off the walls. One day he was so disruptive that I ultimately asked him to leave. That was disappointing, because we normally worked so well together.
I saw Adam for a piano lesson later that day, and I explained why I had asked him to leave my class.
“Let’s think of something you really love doing,” I told him. “Like playing Minecraft. You love Minecraft, right?”
“Imagine you’re out in the Learning Commons, you’ve got your headphones on and you’re playing Minecraft, and you’re really into it. Then imagine I come up to you, I pull your headphones off, and start talking. You’re still trying to play, but I won’t stop talking and pushing the mouse around and trying to take over. How does that make you feel?”
“I feel bad,” he said. I could tell that he meant it. He was imagining the scenario and had a look of pain and frustration on his face. “I feel mad.”
“You should feel mad,” I said. “It’s not fair when someone disrupts you while you’re trying to do something you love. Here’s what I want you to know: I love to teach. It’s one of my favourite things to do. And earlier, in class, when you were interrupting me and acting all crazy, it made me feel sad, and mad, just like you would feel if I was messing with you while you were playing Minecraft.”
I think Adam understood me. He apologized and seemed remorseful. I wish I could say that he was better in class after that, but, unfortunately, his parents didn’t register him in any subsequent Fine Arts classes. I still call it a win, though, because I could tell he was considering the impact of his behaviour on me. (Of course, he was also impacting the other children in the class, but I chose to take a more personal approach, since we had a history, and I knew he cared about my feelings.)
By leveling with Adam in this way, I was attempting to teach him to empathize, or “wear someone else’s shoes,” so to speak. Empathy doesn’t always come naturally to children, and that’s okay. Children get a lot of care and attention from the adults around them and it’s normal to have a self-centred attitude at a young age. The ability to empathize is not an innate trait, it is a social skill, and one of the most important social skills in terms of long-term relationship success.
I am not a psychologist, and I am not a parent. I’m not qualified to give advice on how to teach your child empathy. I am only here to tell you that you must teach them. You must pay attention and remind them to consider the impact of their behaviour. Do not assume that it will develop without your help.
As to how, here are a few links that might be helpful. I encourage you to do your research, experiment, and share your experiences on our Facebook page. Raising compassionate, thoughtful children is in everyone’s best interests, and we’re all in this together, after all.
Harvard Graduate School of Education: How Parents Can Cultivate Empathy in Children.
Parents Magazine: 11 Ways to Raise a Compassionate Child.
Positive Psychology Program: 40 Kindness Activities & Empathy Worksheets for Students and Adults.
Vanessa Farkas is a writer, musician, educator, and lifetime learner who worked at the Phoenix Education Foundation as a music teacher from 2010-2018 and has left to retrain and pursue a new career as a legal assistant. Her eight years at Phoenix have left her enriched with experiences and stories, and this series blends those stories and experiences with practical advice and perspectives on helping children develop social skills. Names have been changed.