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Process Drama and How to Teach Empathy in the Classroom

An educator teaches empathy to three students by using process drama.

Empathy for others is nothing less than essential to the functioning of a harmonious society. Teachers play a big role in its development. For many people, learning to feel empathy for others—especially those of different races, genders and ethnic backgrounds—begins in the classroom.

If students haven’t been taught empathy, racial reconciliation, the impact of bullying or awareness of their own biases either at home or elsewhere, the responsibility falls to teachers.

Because this is such an important issue for teachers, Fresno Pacific University provides a continuing education class, Teaching Empathy: The Human Experience and Process Drama. The course can be applied toward a Social Emotional Learning Certificate and earn teachers 2 professional development credits.

Emily Howard, who teaches the FPU process drama course, says process drama “allows students to exercise empathy by becoming real or fictional characters and providing a safe environment for students to represent others in an honest and real way.”

“By creating these environments, educators learn to guide their students in authentic exercises in empathy for others and making social-emotional connections. It is a thrill to see how drama is transformative!” says Howard.

How Process Drama Works

Process drama provides a method for teachers to develop empathy in students. The goal of process drama is to give students an effective way to walk in another person’s shoes. The FPU course focuses on helping teachers create process drama programs that successfully achieve this goal.

Process drama has the advantage of not requiring many materials or a great deal of set-up beforehand. Each variation of process drama walks students through a real-life experience that requires them to demonstrate empathy.

Students are assigned roles and act out situations without a script. Teachers provide a framework for where the conversation can go, giving students a specific topic to discuss or challenge to resolve. Students consider these issues from their character's perspective, which is often someone quite different from the student “actor.”

Howard says that Dorothy Heathcote, the creator of process drama, describes drama as “a real man in a real mess.” She says that this simple statement has remarkable meaning when applied to students who can authentically portray another person.

Learning the sounds, influences and cultural climate of a period and subsequently representing a person affected by that historical context by speaking in the first person is unique,” Howard says. “This exercise in making social-emotional connections builds empathy for others. The more we introduce students to this type of role-playing, their ability to empathize with others will improve.”

The Importance of Developing Empathy in the Classroom

Along with social emotional learning and global awareness, process drama adds another useful tool in an educator’s toolbox for teaching students how to feel empathy.

Teachers create a structure for students, but “the teacher typically cannot make the ultimate decisions. This is the job of the students,” according to The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. The center notes that teachers do not tell students how to act but rather “ask students to pretend and engage their imaginations.”

In a blog post for the NEA Foundation, Oregon elementary school teacher Nanette Lehmann writes about the importance of weaving global awareness into education. She does this by emerging students in experiential learning, such as that offered through process drama. “Making memories is imperative for learning to be retained,” she writes.

Studies show that learning empathy builds a strong emotional quotient (EQ). Emotional quotient is the ability to understand your feelings, others' feelings and have self-control over your own emotions. Many experts believe EQ is more important to success than IQ.

What Teachers Learn in the FPU Teaching Empathy Course

Educators taking the online Teaching Empathy course from FPU learn about the history of process drama dating back to the 1970s. Students in the course also view and respond to examples of process drama on YouTube.

“They see first-hand how students are affected by their teachers’ guidance in understanding context and speaking from someone else’s point of view in the first person to represent a person’s authentic experience,” says Howard.

They also listen to a podcast from Teaching Hard History that offers free resources to supplement their curriculum with instructional tools for teaching tolerance. Howard says the podcast “In the Footsteps of Others: Process Drama” offers further justification for using process drama to teach topics such as slavery.

She says the benefits of the Teaching Empathy course are exponential.” Educators can apply lessons learned in the course to any grade from K-14. The process also works in different subject areas, such as history or literature, giving students new ways to consider others in empathetic situations.

Howard has her students develop several different types of process drama lesson plans. They can then replicate these plans, modifying them for literature, science, social studies or historical contexts.

“Imagine taking that novel you've been teaching for 13 years and finding new ways of walking your students through why the characters make certain decisions,” Howard says. She adds that teachers in the course “discover the value of adding the dimensions of music, art, or political climate to the context of that dry social studies lesson.”

Learning how to implement process drama in their classroom gives teachers another way of connecting with students—and getting students to connect with feelings of empathy. By experiencing another person’s point of view through process drama, students take a big step toward becoming productive members of society.