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Understanding and Bridging the Empathy Gap in Schools with Dr. Don Parker

Understanding and Bridging the Empathy Gap in Schools with Dr. Don Parker

Author: David Specht | Blog |

Social-emotional learning (SEL), empathy, and the ability to form meaningful relationships in the classroom are fundamental to effective teaching. According to a recent study by Yale, students from schools that emphasize SEL not only achieve better academically but also feel more connected and involved in school life. They attend more regularly, participate more actively in class, and experience significant growth in personal skills like confidence, resilience, and optimism. Additionally, these students generally feel happier and less stressed, with fewer experiences of anxiety and depression. 

We had the opportunity to discuss these crucial topics with Dr. Don Parker, a respected former principal and national keynote speaker who specializes in trauma-informed practices and improving school culture.

Let’s look at six key takeaways from our conversation with Dr. Parker that you can use in your classroom to positively impact your students’ lives.

Empathy in Education

Empathy is vital for recognizing that behaviors such as anxiety or depression are often manifestations of deeper issues. Trauma-informed teachers are skilled at interpreting these behaviors as signs, using them to apply strategies that support academic and social development.

For example, a student might withdraw from participation in class due to unresolved personal issues. An empathetic teacher can notice these changes in behavior and provide the necessary support or adjustments in the classroom.

“A lot of students communicate through their behavior since they lack communication skills themselves. And so the behavior manifests when the student may feel anxiety or depression or just some internal issues that they have where there’s a lack of self-esteem or a lack of competence. And so that behavior communicates a need.”

-Dr. Don Parker

Beyond Content Teaching

Effective teaching integrates social-emotional learning seamlessly within academic content. Teachers equipped with SEL strategies can better address underlying student challenges, improving classroom behavior and overall engagement.

For example, a teacher might observe a student struggling with teamwork or group activities. By incorporating SEL strategies such as cooperative learning and role-playing, the teacher can help the student develop better social skills and confidence in collaborative settings.

“If a teacher thinks that they can just be content teachers and not teach the importance of social-emotional learning, then that’s just like bringing a knife to a gunfight. We have to have those anger management skills, those de-escalation strategies, and that leverage in a relationship that we have with students in order to see the behavior that we want to see out of them to create those productive learning environments.”

-Dr. Don Parker

The Power of Relationships

In Dr. Parker’s latest book, “Be the Driving Force: Leading Your School on the Road to Equity,” he underscores the crucial role of relationships in education. He emphasizes the significance of building trust and respect with students, recognizing that these connections are essential for combating the effects of trauma. With the support of a caring adult, resilience in students can flourish. These positive connections show students that their best interests are a priority, encouraging open communication and active engagement in their own learning process.

For example, a student might act out in class due to feeling misunderstood or isolated. A teacher who invests time in building trust can create a safe space for this student to express themself and begin to participate more positively.

“When a teacher can form a positive, trusting relationship with a student who has trauma, then that student will understand that the teacher has their best interests in mind. And so the teacher now can leverage that relationship to let the student know, ‘Hey, I care about you. I have your best interests at heart, and I want to see you be successful.’”

-Dr. Don Parker

Warmly Demanding High Expectations

Being a “warm demander” means setting high expectations for students while providing the necessary support to help them meet those goals. It involves conveying to students that they are capable of success and that the teacher is truly invested in their growth. By maintaining high standards while also offering encouragement and support, teachers can empower their students to strive for excellence and reach their full potential.

For example, a teacher might challenge a student to improve their writing skills by assigning them a rigorous writing assignment. However, the teacher also provides guidance, feedback, and resources to help the student succeed, demonstrating a belief in their abilities and a commitment to their academic success.

“Being a warm demander is setting high expectations for students and giving students the support needed to reach those expectations. It’s letting a student know that they’re capable and telling them, ‘I care about you. I’m going to support you to meet these expectations, but I’m not going to settle for less out of you.'”

-Dr. Don Parker

Creating Safe and Supportive Environments

Teachers who are trauma-informed prioritize creating safe and supportive environments where students can manage their emotions effectively. By establishing calming spaces within the classroom, teachers provide students with a designated area to work through their emotions and alleviate stress. These spaces offer students the opportunity to relax and practice self-care, allowing them to return to learning with a renewed focus and sense of calm.

“A lot of teachers are building calming centers in their classrooms, where if a student needs a break, they can go and sit in a bean bag chair, meditate, and breathe. When teachers are trauma-informed, they set up spaces where students can go to manage their emotions before returning to learning.”

-Dr. Don Parker

Equipping Students for Future Success

Educators play a huge role in preparing students for success beyond the classroom by focusing on essential skills such as problem-solving, collaboration, and critical thinking. By incorporating SEL into the curriculum, teachers equip students with the tools and strategies needed to navigate complex challenges and succeed in today’s workforce. By creating a classroom environment that promotes emotional intelligence and interpersonal skills, educators empower students to become resilient, adaptable, and effective contributors to society.

For example, a teacher might assign group projects that require students to collaborate, communicate effectively, and think critically to solve real-world problems. Through these experiences, students develop not only academic knowledge but also valuable interpersonal skills that are highly sought after in today’s job market.

“We’re preparing students to be productive in today’s workforce, and to prepare them, we have to think about the skills that students need, including problem-solving, collaboration, and critical thinking. It’s important to equip teachers with the skills and strategies to teach students about these skills and emotional intelligence.”

-Dr. Don Parker

Just as Dr. Parker helps entire schools to implement these strategies, you, too, can incorporate them into your own classroom to create a more inclusive and supportive environment where all students can thrive. Together, let’s continue to prioritize empathy and social-emotional learning in our classrooms, ensuring every student has the opportunity to reach their full potential.

If you’d like to get in touch with Dr. Parker regarding professional development bookings, please visit his website

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