Five Steps to End School Bullying: Empathy (Essay 5 of 6)

The fifth step schools can take to end bullying is to focus on promoting empathy in the school community. Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. When people are able to see the world through the eyes and emotions of others, concern for others increases and bullying decreases. Unfortunately, of the five steps we have presented, promoting empathy is the most difficult to implement because it requires not just a change in the structure and practices of schooling, it also requires a change in mindset. To promote empathy, adults must embrace and incorporate diversity into the DNA of the school, treat young people with empathy and respect, and model the behaviors that they would want to see in young people.

Diversity is a critical driver of empathy that is rarely found in schools due to a combination of institutional priorities for individual schools and socio-economic factors. More specifically, public schools have a variety of concerns that push them to limit diversity. In addition to the structure of modern schooling that segregates students by age, schools manage their student bodies to maximize revenue and minimize complications. Historically, the concern with complications trumped the focus on revenue, and problem children were pushed out of the schools. The children may have been deemed problematic because of behavioral issues, academic performance (or more specifically, inability to test well), or they simply required too much individualized instruction.[1] The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) helped shift the priorities for schools so that they became more inclusive.[2] Many of the students the schools were previously trying to push out the door all of a sudden offered more revenue than students without disabilities.[3] Unfortunately, it did so in a very overt manner that singled out and identified these students as slow or special needs, when in reality every student deserves educational experiences tailored to their unique needs.[4] Schools went from rejecting neurodiversity to abusing it for their own needs, never stopping to celebrate it as a fundamental benefit to the learning experience.

Another problem for public schools is that racial preferences and “islands of poverty” have left schools more segregated today than they were 40 years ago, despite the population of America being more diverse today than ever.[5][6] Public schools are not only left less diverse because of these socio-economic factors, but they help drive it. The “quality” of public schools is determined in large part by the race and class of the student body, not by the quality of teaching.[7] This creates an unvirtuous cycle in which families with means opt out of poorer performing schools and move to school districts with so-called “better” schools (e.g., whiter, more affluent).

Private schools have simpler and more obvious motives to limit diversity. Private schools, especially those that have a waitlist for admission, get to pick and choose which students will make up their student body. This is good in that it helps the school better control and shape their school culture, but it is potentially bad if it is used to limit diversity. Unfortunately, most private schools use the application process to limit diversity. It is a given that private schools will be limited with regard to economic diversity, as families in poverty simply cannot afford the tuition associated with private schooling. The more expensive private schools need either large endowments or to use the tuition of full-pay students to subsidize lower income students, while the less expensive private schools typically cannot entertain bringing in more than a token scholarship student.

While some private schools have made racial diversity a priority, they most often do so by catering to upper class families of color.[8] This class problem is even more pronounced for schools that cater to foreign students, similar to most American colleges and universities, because foreign students are expected to pay the full cost of tuition without any financial aid. Aesthetic and geographic diversity in a predominantly wealthy class is not really diversity.

Further, private schools are less likely than public schools to take on students with learning differences, particularly if they adhere to traditional educational practices. Those that are willing to take on students with learning differences are often quick to discharge students who struggle to fall in line with the academic expectations of the school, allowing the school to artificially inflate their academic profile.[9]

From an educational perspective, diversity greatly enhances a learning environment, allowing for interactions that result in leaps in learning and understanding that cannot be accessed through lectures or textbooks. As Stanford University acknowledges, “a diverse community of scholars asks unexpected questions and contributes divergent insights.”[10] It is a catalyst for creativity and innovation. Beyond the benefits to learning, exposure to diversity also amplifies empathy and inspires people to take action to address the ills of society. Meanwhile, the absence of diversity in public and private schools inhibits the ability of students to develop the type of empathy that would ward off bullying, or benefit society more broadly. For these reasons, schools must proactively embrace and incorporate diversity into their communities, from hiring to admissions to daily operations, in order to promote empathy.

Diversity in an environment is necessary to instill empathy in young people, but it is not sufficient. A learning environment also needs to treat everyone in that space with unconditional respect. NYU professor of psychology and empathy expert Martin Hoffman points out, “You can enhance empathy by the way you treat children, or you can kill it by providing a harsh punitive environment.”[11] In short, punishments for undesired behaviors such as bullying can actually make young people less empathetic, and more likely to bully.[12] But it is the reaction to bullying that provides schools the opportunity to model empathetic behavior. For example, instead of focusing on arguing that bullying is wrong, school leaders should concern themselves with helping the bully acknowledge how the victim feels, as well as recognizing the emotions that the bully experienced that spurred them to engage in bullying behavior.

Convincing young people that they are respected unconditionally is virtually impossible in a hierarchical environment, however. Compulsory schooling, where adults make the rules, brings with it automatic skepticism to the intention of the adults. Showing concern for young people while simultaneously demanding obedience and doling out punishment does not engender a feeling within them that adults are their equals and co-learners in a space that respects them fully as people, even if sometimes a young person may engage in antisocial behavior.

Developing empathy in young people requires ensuring the conditions that allow it to flourish. Schools must embrace diversity, model empathetic behavior, and tear down hierarchy so that young people feel fully respected as equals.


(1)   Historically, schools have identified students of color and those in poverty as the most problematic. This can be attributed in part to the racism of school leaders and teachers, institutional racism, and a disregard for addressing the needs of students who faced trauma in their personal lives.


(3)   Many also argue that young people who were not identified as problematic were also being identified as learning disabled for the purpose of generating easy revenue for the schools, with certain doctors and pharmaceutical companies also benefiting.

(4)   The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act has a provision that requires public schools to develop an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) for every student with a disability who is found to meet the federal and state requirements for special education.




(8)   Unfortunately, even where race and class diversity is a priority in the admissions process, poor students of color often find themselves harmed by environments of privilege that convince them that they are not capable, competent, or worthy of a great education.

(9)   To prevent the essay from running too long we limited our discussion of diversity. However, other notable forms of diversity include religious, political, cultural, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, physical disability, and life experience. Both public and private schools find themselves segregated along many of these lines, as well. For example, depending on if a school is rural or urban, or if it is in the deep south or the northeast, it is likely that the school may skew hard one way or the other with regards to religious or political diversity (especially for parochial schools).



(12) Punishments for behaviors unrelated to bullying (e.g., being late to class, not doing homework, talking out loud) can also create similar effects.