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7 Ways to Cultivate Compassion in the Classroom

For Dr. Amanda Sebastienne Grant, teaching students awareness of how they relate to others in society is the most important lesson in psychology.

Educator

Amanda Sebastienne Grant, PhD

Professor of Psychology, Prescott College in Prescott, AZ

PhD in Psychology: Consciousness and Society, MA in Humanistic Psychology, BA in Psychology

When she considers the most valuable takeaways from the courses she teaches at Prescott College, Amanda Sebastienne Grant does not think about terminology, definitions, or theories. She talks instead about moments of enlightenment and personal insight, when students begin to focus on human values and how they can impact others deeply.

“I keep coming back to things like compassion, acceptance of others, self-awareness, [and] why what we’re studying matters,” says the psychology professor. “What’s unique about the classroom is the opportunity to develop the skills to be and to learn in relation to others. The classroom can be a laboratory for exploring how we want to be and act in the world.”

Grant feels it is important for educators to emphasize awareness of ourselves and our larger, interpersonal roles, including the importance of civic and social responsibility. “This is often overlooked in the classroom, even though it’s core to the values of a liberal arts education,” she says.

Today, in courses such as Interpersonal Communication, Grant tries to motivate students to be more compassionate by reflecting on how their actions affect themselves and others and engaging in practices (such as meditation and active listening) that can increase their compassion quotient. She points out that compassionate behavior not only positively impacts others but also appears to have a positive impact on our own happiness and well-being. “So, on one level, compassion is important for social well-being, and on another level, for individual well-being. This makes it easy to integrate compassion in to most psychology courses,” Grant says. She offers her insights and strategies below.

Context

“Though psychology is often defined as the study of human behavior and experience, I think it should always be the study of human behavior and experience toward the facilitation of well-being. I think it’s valuable to think about how anything we learn can help other living beings and the flourishing of all things.”

— Amanda Sebastienne Grant, PhD

Course: Interpersonal Communication

Course description: This course covers the theories and practice of interpersonal communication. Students develop an awareness of their own unique style of communicating and develop strategies to maximize their potential. An emphasis is placed on practicing the skills of effective speaking and listening, and developing skills of generative and critical thinking.

See resources shared by Amanda Sebastienne Grant, PhD

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Lesson: 7 Ways to develop compassion in the classroom

Although Grant views compassion as a natural aspect of human character, she believes that people can increase their compassion by increasing other-awareness and through the rehearsal of empathetic actions. In her classroom, she has developed a series of exercises to provide students with some “practice problems” that achieve exactly that.

Here, she shares her ideas on how to integrate compassion into the very fabric of any course:

1. Assign “compassion practice” and journaling

Grant’s goal is for students to become more attuned to the world around them—to the suffering and well-being of themselves and other living beings, and to the impact they can have (both positive and negative) on one another.

To that end, “Students are asked to notice moments throughout the week when they feel compassion and to complete at least one compassionate act each week,” says Grant. “Students then reflect on this practice through journal responses.” Grant also provides guided questions designed to make this practice relevant to whatever topics are being covered in class.

2. Build skills in compassionate listening

Grant makes it a point to teach the skill of compassionate listening early in the semester so that students can practice in the classroom. Many times, she says, people just wait for their turn to speak in a conversation. Compassionate listening requires you to concentrate on the other person’s words and ensure that she feels deeply heard, even if you disagree with her point of view.

“We often go into communications with an agenda, an outcome [in our head] of how we want the conversation to go,” says Grant. Other times, we say things to boost our ego. “Students nick at each other to make themselves feel good.”

To get them to think about listening in a new way, Grant has the students discuss what they hope to get out of conversations. “What is our ultimate goal?” she asks. “Is it to let off steam? To show how much you know? To make someone else feel small?”

Her goal is for them to want to try to understand each other—and to be interested and curious.

Grant’s Introduction to Humanized Education

Grant learned to value the personal relationship between faculty and students while attending Warren Wilson College in Asheville, North Carolina—a small liberal arts college with a 9:1 student-faculty ratio. “When I missed classes, professors would call me to see why. The experience was very humanizing,” she says.

After college, when she began looking for graduate programs, she looked for an emphasis on humanistic psychology, the branch of psychology that studies the conditions under which humans flourish, particularly in the areas of love, fulfillment, self-worth, and autonomy.

As she continued on to earn her PhD, Grant became increasingly concerned about what she describes as “societal well-being and the suffering we inflict upon one another.” When she became a professor, she realized that she could become part of the solution by helping her students develop a sense of civic and social responsibility. As part of this effort, she makes the practice of compassion central to every class she teaches.

3. Guide them in compassion meditation

Meditation can be an effective way to introduce students to compassionate thinking. She starts with a small amount of time—just 5 or 10 minutes—because it is difficult for beginners to sit still for longer. While there are many approaches to meditation, she likes a Buddhist-inspired approach learned from Matthieu Ricard, author of Altruism: The Power of Compassion to Change Yourself and the World.

“First he suggests imagining someone who is in need of something—it might be you, or someone close to you, or someone who is homeless,” she says. “Imagine they have a need that is not being met that is causing them suffering. Then imagine that you have the ability to give them what they need.”

Engaging in this practice regularly, says Grant, literally alters the brain. “There is powerful research that shows neurological changes that come from compassion and meditation,” she says. “It literally rewires the brain in ways that are beneficial to us. One of the theories is that when we develop compassion, we feel loving connectivity. And this is so important in an alienated society.”

4. Read from leaders in compassion theory

Grant asks students to read works from authors she considers thought leaders in the study of compassion. These include:

  • Tara Brach, a psychologist, meditation teacher, and author of Radical Acceptance
  • The Dalai Lama, whose book The Art of Happiness has become a classic
  • Richard J. Davidson, a neuroscientist who studies the psychological/neurological impacts of compassion practice and author of Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body
  • Matthieu Ricard, a French Buddhist monk and longtime compassion meditator
  • Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk whose book The Art of Communication resonates with Grant’s students
  • B. Alan Wallace, a Buddhist philosopher and commentator on modern society who promotes personal phenomenological inquiry as an alternative scientific methodology for investigating first-person experiences such as consciousness
5. Show movies that trigger compassion

Films that portray human experience in which characters live through significant struggles and/or triumphs can be powerful in eliciting feelings of compassion. Her list includes The Florida Project, The Help, A Man Called Ove, Moonlight, and Hidden Figures.

She hopes that by identifying with the characters, students can gain a deeper understanding of the breadth and depth of human experience: struggle, suffering, love, loss, triumph, injustice, spirit, compassion, and more.

6. Talk about the boundaries of compassion

“Some students struggle with knowing how to have boundaries to protect themselves—what they can give,” says Grant. She encourages students to consider how their compassionate actions or words will be received, and how they will feel about providing them. This requires sensitivity to each particular situation—and careful consideration.

“If you really think about it, the compassionate thing to do is not always what someone is telling you they need to reduce their suffering,” she adds. For instance, providing someone with a substance use disorder with money may make them grateful in the moment, but it only perpetuates a behavior that ultimately is causing them misery.

“There are no predetermined responses,” she adds. “Students need to learn to live with it and to wrestle with it.” This, too, she says, is part of their “compassion practice.”

7. Be a role model of compassion

Grant sends a powerful signal of her values, by engaging in compassionate listening, making an effort to understand students’ points of view, and demonstrating her trust for her students. “For example, if one of my students comes to me and apologizes for not turning in an assignment because someone close to them passed away, I don’t require documentation for that,” she explains. “I want them to feel cared about. I want to show compassion. I am personally committed to a compassionate life.”

Outcomes

Students have shared many anecdotes with Grant about how her lessons have affected their lives—seemingly little things that show a heightened awareness of other people and how to make their lives better. “It happens quickly,” she says. They may notice a friend’s struggles or give someone a ride. Many of them start volunteering at an animal shelter or a food bank. They start to eat less meat as they develop compassion for animals. Or they will notice that someone in a grocery store can’t reach a product, so they’ll offer, “Hey, can I get this for you?”

“There is something beautiful about the fact that we are hardwired to reduce other people’s suffering,” she says. “It translates into wanting to do things when we can—and when we see opportunities. We become attuned to the positive feeling we get when we reach out and touch someone. It’s very uplifting to think about it.”

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