Empathy and the K-12 Environment

Students in Courtney Putnam’s integrated learning course that links English 101 and College 101 participated in small group “empathy projects,” which involved both primary and secondary research at Cascadia. Here, students in the “Empathy in the K-12 Environment” group present and interpret their research findings.

By Cascadia students McKenna Secrist, RJ Roy, William Hager, and Jack Iudice

Do you remember that one kid in school? You know, the one that consistently found themselves on the short of end of rumors and raided lockers. Maybe when they brought up concerns with respective authorities, they were told to ignore the problem. Maybe they were even punished. There was this other kid too; the one that could tip beakers in science class and yell obscenities in the hall and only receive a passing glance. It only follows that the victim might stop and wonder what place empathy could in a world where the abusers are at the top of the food-chain, and tight networks of fear are allowed to thrive within a system that facilitates their growth. Should things be left as they are? If not, what role should authority–namely, teachers–play in effecting change?

The society we live in today cries out in a never-ending search for a more loving and more accepting humankind. People fight for change in the hearts of political leaders and rally to make heard their need for more empathy in the world. Too much of the coverage surrounding these patterns in social revolution focuses on the adults who play roles in the communities and not enough on where their values and views were fed for so long. When we turn our attention to what and how children are being taught for the first eighteen years of their lives we can establish an understanding of what children stand to learn about growing into kinder, more loving, and more empathetic adults.


The scope of our research was based on empathy as it pertains to the developing brain. The skill we looked for was the ability to recognize other people as separate entities, capable of feeling a full spectrum of emotion. To empathize with another is to recognize and relate to how another person feels with one’s own experiences. To take it further, empathy is about forming bonds through this understanding.


By exploring empathy and what role it plays in learning processes within the K-12 environment, we overviewed several studies. In the article “Empathy in Education: Engagement, Values and Achievement,” Ann Rose relates empathy to the Hawaiian word kuleana, which she defines as a person’s personal sense of responsibility and their willingness to hold themselves accountable for their actions. Based on 701 reports of hateful incidents of harassment, she makes the claim that aggressive behaviors are on the rise within the educational environment.

In School Psychology Review, Rodkin, Philip C., and Ernest V.E. Hodges describe the development of aggressive social behaviors, as well as how this influences children and their group dynamics. Studies conducted revealed that school demographics routinely view students who are aggressive and not well liked as popular. Conversely, many who were well liked possessed less influence over others. However, while bullies build extensive networks that incorporate both aggressive and passive students, aggression isn’t the only glue that can hold people together. More optimistically, there is a negative correlation between how many friends a person has, even if they’re non-aggressive, and how much they are bullied.

Finally, Batanova, M., & Loukas, A. provided a survey of 481 people between the ages 10-14 in “Unique and Interactive Effects of Empathy, Family, and School Factors on Early Adolescents’ Aggression”. This study revealed that children with a supportive family, as well as those with strong school relationships, exhibited less aggression, suggesting the potential root of the problem.


Based on our research, it is not unreasonable to assume that teachers don’t take enough preventative measures to stop bullying. Nor does the educational system place emphasis on the development of empathy in students.


As part of our data gathering process, we wandered the halls of Cascadia College, passing out 35 surveys to be filled out by students. The surveys contained 21 statements relating to the importance and presence of empathy within school environments. How true a student felt the statement was could be rated on a scale from 1-5. 1 representing the opinion of “strongly disagree” and 5 being “strongly agree.” Spaces were provided to record information regarding gender, educational background, age, and year of graduation.


We did a survey comprising of about 30 students at Cascadia, and over half of the students’ studies said that they had teachers that taught empathy in their K-12 experience. Interestingly, about half the students were bullied in in their K-12 experience as well. This shows that empathy taught in school affected the amount of bullying because the students became empathetic. Almost everyone in the survey agreed that empathy should be taught in school, whether they were bullied or not. This is saying that they believe empathy should be taught from a young age, instead of being learned later in life. Instead of this being the case, almost everyone said that they think that students are more empathetic in college then in the K-12 environment. Even though most people’s teachers taught kindness and empathy, a lot of bullying still happened; Ten people in our survey said that bullying was present in their K-12 years. Our studies conclude that most people believe that empathy is developed throughout life, but it is better to learn at an earlier age to decrease the amount of bullying and increase the amount of kindness in the classroom.


Within the book, Empathy in Education: Engagement, Values and Achievement, Ann expresses that her vision is to teach students social-emotional skills, along with teaching kids normal academic skills. She explains her desire for students to offer greater guidance to students, so that they better their skills as critical thinkers and problem solvers. Meanwhile, the “School Psychology Review” proposes that forming bonds of close understanding with others has a ripple effect that can positively influences the environment of entire classrooms. In contradiction to our sampling of data, it claims that teachers often fail to act against bullies, or even side with the perpetrators. The consensus is that it is imperative for teachers to remain attuned to the environment, prove beneficial for teachers to provide anonymous surveys to map the power dynamics within their own classroom, as well as encourage and monitor greater socialization between students.


Batanova, M., & Loukas, A. (2014). “Unique and Interactive Effects of Empathy, Family, and School Factors on Early Adolescents’ Aggression.” Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 43(11), 1890-1902.

Cooper, Bridget. Empathy in Education : Engagement, Values and Achievement. London ; New York, NY: Continuum, 2011. Web.

Rodkin, Philip C., and Ernest V.E. Hodges. School Psychology Review. N.p., 2003. Web.15 Feb. 2017.

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