Select Page

by Beth Bailey

An interview with Lower School counselor, Shelli Reetz

There are several types of empathy: emotional empathy, when you feel an emotional pull; cognitive empathy, when you think about how someone might feel; and applied empathy, acting in a compassionate way toward someone else. As parents, we want to encourage and develop the third type of empathy in our kids. We want them to learn how to use internal feelings or thoughts to impact their relationships and even affect our community. We want them to cultivate compassion through practice.

This is a thread that runs through the student experience here: from service projects in our Lower School classrooms to the hospice program that is an elective for our Grade 12 students.

I had the opportunity to chat with Shelli Reetz, our Lower School counselor, to delve a bit deeper into this topic. Enjoy our Q & A.

Q: How is applied empathy learned and reinforced throughout the Lower School?

Applied empathy is an integral part of what we do in the Lower School.  Classrooms implement responsive classroom practices and in my case, through classroom-based counseling lessons. These center around a specific topics such as focusing on making the link between self and others. We integrate this by modeling ways to be kind or noticing when someone else might be feeling in a way we need to act upon.

Q: Empathy is an important gateway to social and emotional growth in children. What are some characteristics or “milestones” to look for?

It is very typical for young children to be egocentric during early phases of their development. It’s part of figuring out what they are about as little humans. At Harley, we encourage them to begin thinking about other people because we need to get along with others in the classroom and in the world. One of our goals is to help children problem-solve around different situations. How are they feeling? Can they name the feeling? How can they then recognize that feeling in others?

Some people say certain people just are naturally “more empathetic.” Some children may be more skilled at this because of the way their personality operates, but all children can learn empathy if we teach it, model it, and support their practice. The goal isn’t just to understand what empathy is. It’s to extend it to feelings, experiences, and how to act so that you are helpful and compassionate.

Q: How can parents show empathy in the way they parent?

  • Model compassion and kindness
  • Model noticing feelings and the experiences of others

By sharing our own feelings, we help to create a safe environment for children to ask questions about what is happening around them.

Even when redirecting our children, we can acknowledge how they feel while still following through on a consequence. It a great opportunity to really talk with them and help to separate their behaviors from themselves. (“We all make mistakes…” “It’s ok to feel big feelings”)

Those little moments can help children to understand that other people have feelings or reactions, even in a moment of disagreement or difficulty. Having these conversations in developmentally appropriate ways allows for reinforcement of what is being learned in the classroom.

Q: How can being empathetic influence someone’s life as they grow up?

Anyone can learn this at any time! The human spirit has the ability to change and grow at any age. It impacts all aspects of adult life as well from job and relationship success, to self-care and  dealing with negativity and set backs.

As parents, we may want to shield our children from adversity, but experiencing some difficulty builds resilience and also helps the child to be more compassionate. As students move on to Middle School, Upper School, and college they will be able to understand: what their challenges and privileges are and how both of these interact to form their world view. Hopefully, this will lead them to act so they can make a difference in the world.

One Final Note

In her Counseling Corner newsletter, Shelli provides links, book titles, and other information for parents. An interesting, recent book about applied empathy from a neuroscience perspective is:

Second Nature: How Parents Can Use Neuroscience to Help Kids Develop Empathy, Creativity, and Self-Control” by Erin Clabough. She discusses using key insights from brain development research to learn self-regulation, a master life skill founded in empathy, creativity, and self-control. It’s worth reading and the style of her writing is engaging, not clinical.

You are welcome to reach out to Shelli at any time: