How to build a culture of compassion

Recent findings in neuroscience and evolutionary biology show that humans are wired for cooperation and compassion from the first years of life onwards. Translated to the school setting, the research confirms that the vast majority of students, including those involved in bullying, will demonstrate empathy and kindness towards their peers when their school creates conditions that support these behaviors.  One of the most powerful practices to build compassion is to move beyond our habitual focus on differences and to lead your students through this "just like me" exercise.

Just like me. An exercise in compassion

Ask your students to find a partner and to sit in front of them.

Take five seconds to make eye contact with your partner and now close your eyes.

I am going to lead you through an exercise that offers you a different way of seeing your student partner.

As you sit here with your eyes closed sense that there is another person sitting in front of you. A fellow human being, just like you.  Now notice these things about your partner 

  • This person has a body and a mind, just like me.
  • This person has feelings, emotions and thoughts, just like me.
  • This person has in his or her life, experienced physical and emotional pain and suffering, just like me.
  • This person has at some point been sad, disappointed, angry, or hurt, just like me.
  • This person has felt unworthy or inadequate, just like me.
  • This person worries and is frightened sometimes, just like me.
  • This person has longed for friendship, just like me.
  • This person is learning about life, just like me.
  • This person wishes to be free from pain and suffering, just like me.
  • This person wishes to be safe and healthy, just like me.
  • This person wishes to be happy, just like me.
  • This person wishes to be loved, just like me.

Now, allow some wishes for their well-being to arise

  • I wish that this person be free from pain and suffering.
  • I wish that this person be peaceful and happy.
  • I wish that this person be loved.
  • I wish that this person has the strength, resources, and friends to navigate the difficulties in life with ease.

After a few moments, ask your students to open their eyes

Take a moment to notice your partner and to look around the room

Take five minutes to talk with their partner how this exercise was for them. If you feel that they need specific prompts you can suggest they ask

  • Do you see your partner any differently now that you did this exercise?
  • Do you think that most students focus more on each other's differences or their shared humanity?
  • Is there anything you feel called to do differently now that you have been through this exercise?

At the end of five minutes ask them to thank their partners.

Discuss as a large group how this exercise was for them.