students engaged

Finding the ‘path’ in empathy: Navigating student mental health with compassion, connection, and virtual exchange

“His palms are sweaty, knees weak, arms are heavy.”  

These famous words from rapper Eminem have played over my car radio more than a couple of times in the past seventeen years since their release. But lately, I can’t help but think about how the feelings described in these lyrics plague more and more of our young children each year.

According to The Center for Disease Control and Prevention, one out of every six children (17%) from ages two to eight years old have a diagnosed mental, behavioral, or developmental disorder such as ADHD, depression, or anxiety. What is even more staggering, however, is the number of undiagnosed instances.

Take a moment and think about what this means for the children that enter our classrooms and our hearts each year.

Meet James:

The first time I met eight-year-old James, he seemed shy and timid. On the first day of school, he stood outside our classroom door, reluctant to join his new third grade classmates and me for the commencement of our year.

Throughout the first week of school, James’ behavior could have been labeled as oppositional or defiant. He wouldn’t take out notebooks or start tasks, he would remove himself from activities that required collaboration, and he frequently cried and became angry.

Although my initial instinct as a teacher told me that I needed to be consistent and implement my behavior plan with fidelity, my heart knew better. I knew this behavior was not a choice, and what I saw on the outside was only a small manifestation of a much deeper internal struggle.

James is one of a growing number of students struggling with anxiety. Although some anxiety is normal, more complex instances can impact a child’s peer relationships, academic growth, and everyday life. As teachers, we’re largely ill-equipped to identify mental health concerns and support students within our classrooms. So what do we do?

Connection, compassion, and empathy:

During the time James was a student in my class, I began using a virtual exchange tool called Empatico. Empatico works to connect students from different locations around the world with varying cultural backgrounds to spark empathy, curiosity, and understanding.

I think we could all argue that empathy, the ability to understand and share the feelings of another, is something that we desperately need in our world today. This skill, however, can be especially tricky if you aren’t comfortable with understanding your own feelings, and particularly difficult for our students with mental health concerns.

Through Empatico, James and the other students in my class learned about respectful communication, critical thinking, perspective taking, and cooperation through a series of Empatico skills mini-lessons designed to prepare students for their first virtual interaction with our partner class. We learned about a boy named Tom and compared how we would feel about certain life events in contrast to him. We learned about active listening and set ground rules for effective communication. Most importantly, these lessons served as a springboard for us to open up about our own lives—our feelings, our values, and our emotions.

The magic:

Fear, self-consciousness, and embarrassment are just a few of the overwhelming feelings that can plague an anxious child during social interaction. But what I witnessed during our first Empatico connection was pure magic. James, who previously sought ways to avoid communication with his peers, confidently stood in front of the camera, introduced himself, and shared his questions with our new friends.

As teachers, practicing empathy improves our relationships with our students. Throughout the year, I felt the ups and downs with James. We worked through challenges and celebrated successes. But at this moment, more than ever, I could feel pride beaming from his heart.

Be the change:

Life for our children has become increasingly complex over the past several decades, but as educators, we have the tremendous opportunity and power to assist our kids in developing a set of skills that can help them traverse their inner world and the world around them.

Sandy Merz, author of the ASCD article Who in Your Class Needs Help? stresses that, “Any training regarding student mental health should seek to help teachers become better teachers, not mental health experts or therapists. Content should improve the dynamics of teaching and learning, not overtake it.”

Here are some simple ways to take your teaching to new heights and become a changemaker!

  • Learn more about childhood mental health. Know the signs and symptoms, and learn proactive ways to help students build self-regulation skills.
  • Sign up to complete a classroom virtual exchange at to foster social-emotional learning, self-compassion, and empathy for others.
  • Model empathy for your students each and every day.

It only takes one small moment to change the trajectory of a child’s life!

Ashlee Upp