Shared Empathy

Posted by Angie Balsley on 2/28/2020 7:00:00 AM

There is a great deal of pressure on special education teachers in case conferences. Teachers are attempting to thoroughly, yet succinctly, review 12 months of progress from an individualized plan and facilitate a collaborative effort to set challenging, yet appropriate, goals and services for the coming year. Teachers are also expected to answer questions about a wide-range of topics and respond to parent requests to meet unique student needs. Given the pressure on teachers in conferences and their intense focus on the complicated IEP process, it can be easy to misinterpret interactions and intentions of other case conference committee members, especially parents. When we misinterpret intentions, we can begin to become defensive and our team can start to head down a path of disconnect and discontentment. 

One of the best ways to avoid misinterpretations and discontentment is to understand the paradigm of the others in the meeting. This can be achieved when the participants engage in shared empathy. Empathy is the ability to understand the feelings of another without experiencing those feelings as your own. Empathy allows one to demonstrate compassion without infringing on one’s own beliefs. It is the art of seeing the world as someone else sees it (Weaver & Knudtson presentation, 2017). Through empathy, the listener is less likely to take something done or said personally, or focus only on the negative instead of the positive in a conversation (Ciaramicoli, 2017). 

Theresa Wiseman defined four elements of empathy as
1) see their world,
2) appreciate them as human beings/no judgement,
3) understand feelings, and
4) communicate understanding.
See the article for a brief description of each of the four elements. 


In my last article entitled “Parents’ Emotions,” I described cyclical grief and the emotions that parents of children with disabilities may feel throughout their child’s life. When teachers pause to understand what parents can experience as they raise a child with disabilities, teachers can reframe their thinking with an empathetic lens.  In the same way, parents can also use an empathic lens to understand the perspective of the teacher. I urge all IEP team members to approach case conference meetings with a shared empathy as I truly believe that it will lead to collaborative outcomes for students.  


Dr. Angie Balsley, Executive Director