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Why we hope teaching empathy can prevent sexual assault

In the past several months, we’ve seen a rise in national news stories about college campus sexual assault. With the Stanford rape case this month and other incidents, questions about rape have been front and center in our office. As violence prevention educators, these kinds of issues raise questions for us about how to teach students to prevent rape in the future – in particular, how do you talk to middle school students about these issues?

After all, junior high students are often at many different levels of maturity – including different levels of physical, emotional, and mental maturity. Some students would be ready to hear, process, and discuss frank, open stories about rape. But, some students might not quite be ready for those stories. And yet, as violence prevention educators, we can’t shy away from these hard issues if we want the world to change. How do we try to teach about these difficult topics while meeting every child where they are at?

The answer we’ve been working on is that we search for the root ideas and concepts that give eleven, twelve, and thirteen year-olds the knowledge and understanding to be able to discuss crimes like rape in high school and college. One of the root concepts we keep coming back to is EMPATHY.

Empathy, as you may know, is our human ability to try to put ourselves in someone else’s situation and see the world from their point of view. Empathy is our ability to connect with others on a human level. Empathy requires seeing another person as a full human being with feelings, thoughts, desires, and experiences of their own.

Empathy doesn’t require agreement with someone, or condoning their thoughts or choices. In many ways, this makes empathy hard because the skill of empathy requires instead that we recognize the humanity of those we disagree with and still treat them well even in our disagreement. This can be exceedingly hard because empathy doesn’t allow our brains to turn another human being into an “it” or a thing; empathy leaves no room for dehumanization.

Dehumanization leads to violence. Logically, we know this. Nazis didn’t see Jews as human; conquistadors didn’t see natives as human; southern slave owners didn’t see black slaves as human. It naturally follows that if our children don’t learn to see others as fully human, violence – including sexual assault – is the result.

We hope that one antidote is teaching empathy, and we believe that teachers and schools can have an impact on whether or not our children learn this skill. The big question is, how do you teach empathy?

We’re in the middle of creating a second set of lessons to add to our current Power Up, Speak Out! curriculum. Our first five lessons build a foundation of knowledge for what people deserve in a healthy relationship. In our second set of lessons, we want to help students apply that knowledge and use the skills they learn to create and sustain their own healthy relationships. Here are four tips that we’ve learned so far about teaching empathy:

  1. Encourage knowledge of self.

It turns out that ancient Greek aphorism was really onto something. Research suggests that empathy is made up of several components. One component is the ability to know and separate your own feelings from those of another. This requires some intimate self-knowledge and some practice for self-control. It also allows you to recognize the things you can do that might make you better prepared for empathic responses. For example, if you’re stressed out or not getting enough sleep, it’s much harder to relate to someone else’s problems.


  1. Encourage curiosity.

Curiosity is often accused of killing a cat, but in reality this skill can be a great empathic connector. If you are genuinely curious about others, including strangers – not just those near to you, you are cultivating a part of empathy.


  1. Encourage seeing the things we all have in common.

As human beings, we all have things in common. In fact, we often have more things in common than we have differences. When you start to think about the negative aspects of someone else, see if you can’t make yourself find something in common with them. It’s harder to dehumanize someone when you know that they also like music, or enjoy sports, or feel sad. Remember, we’re more alike than we are different.


  1. Read stories.

Not just happy stories, but all sorts of stories. Reading requires the reader to enter into the heads and hearts of someone else. And if we ask students to read happy stories, sad stories, angry stories, love stories . . . the list goes on, but stories, in short, that encompass all the ranges of human emotion, then we’ll provide plenty of opportunities for students to grow their empathy skills.

Ultimately, it’s important for us as educators to recognize that there are things we can do to help a new generation avoid the harsh consequences of violence. Won’t you join us?

Click the “Training” button above to learn about upcoming workshops for Power Up, Speak Out!

If you want to do more reading on this topic, we suggest the following articles as a good beginning point:







Power Up, Speak Out! is a program of DSVS (Domestic and Sexual Violence Services), a nonprofit organization devoted to serving those affected by domestic and sexual violence in Carbon and Stillwater Counties in Montana. If you’d like to get involved, you can contact Ashley Novakovich, anovakovich@dsvsmontana.org, about volunteering, or you can donate by clicking the button at the top right hand corner of this website.

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