Committee for Children Blog

Why Empathy Alone Won’t Stop Bullying

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empathy, kindness, social emotional learning, SEL, second step

Did you know that people who bully often know exactly how their targets will feel when they bully them? That is, they have the ability to understand the impact of their actions from their targets’ perspective. This ability is a core component of empathy. Think about it this way: Bullying is intentional negative behavior that’s repeated and involves an imbalance of social or physical power. So it makes sense that people who bully others would leverage what they know will hurt the people they’re bullying.

Clearly just making sure students have empathy for each other isn’t enough to prevent bullying. So it’s important to understand what empathy is and how it can influence positive behavior.

What’s Empathy?

The Second Step Program’s definition of empathy is “the ability to feel and understand what someone else is feeling.” The definition doesn’t include feeling care or concern for how someone else is feeling, but it’s often assumed that it does, and empathy is frequently conflated with sympathy or kindness. People who have empathy simply feel and understand how someone else is feeling. In other words, someone may have empathy for another person, but may not take the next step and feel concern for that person and then respond with kindness.

Why Teach Empathy?

As stated in the K-5 Review of Research of our Second Step Program: “Being able to identify, understand, and respond in a caring way to how someone is feeling provides the foundation for helpful and socially responsible behavior, friendships, cooperation, coping, and conflict resolution.”

Teaching empathy to young people—in the case of our Second Step Program, children in kindergarten through eighth grade—sets the foundation for teaching the next step, which is teaching the importance of caring about how others feel and then acting with kindness toward them. In short, kindness is empathy in action.

Kindness is empathy in action!

Making Kindness the Norm

Creating a positive school environment and class climate where kindness and prosocial behavior is the norm (behavior that’s positive, helpful, and intended to promote social acceptance and friendship) helps students feel safer and sets the expectation that students will treat each other and the teacher with respect. It can reduce the likelihood of bullying and help students feel more comfortable reporting bullying if it happens.

Important factors in creating a positive classroom climate:

  • Developing and reinforcing class rules and norms that clearly support safe, respectful, and kind behavior
  • Promoting positive peer relationships to create an environment where students support and are kind to one another
  • Building positive relationships with all students to show them you care both about their progress in the classroom and about them as human beings

Building a foundation of empathy and teaching children that kindness is empathy in action can help them create stronger, more positive relationships in and out of school and can help reduce bullying.

Read more about how to create a positive classroom climate and check out our bullying prevention page, where you’ll find free classroom activities, videos, and more. Second Step users can go to their Dashboard at secondstep.org to find Class Climate Resources in your Bullying Prevention Unit and Child Protection Unit. (Pro Tip: Use the search function!)