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Education with Empathy: Learning Differences

Education With Empathy: How Storytelling Can Help Educators Teach People With Learning Differences

“There is an imminent need for courses that equip teachers and parents or carers to negotiate the ever-increasing complexity of the student population in mainstream classrooms.” Mick Grimley, Dean of Education at Torrens University.

In a typical 21st century Australian classroom, around 16% of students will be diagnosed with one of many different types of learning differences. In this hypothetical, ‘average’ class of 30, for example, there are two students occupying very different places on the autism spectrum. There’s also a child with ADHD, a child who has dyslexia and another with dyspraxia.

As a newly graduated teacher of such a diverse class, you may be feeling that your Master’s in Education left you underprepared for this situation. Perhaps you’ve never taught a student on the spectrum before, let alone two children with totally different sets of needs.

You’re trying to juggle 25 different paces of learning and 25 different ways of communicating. On top of that, there are regular disruptions in the class schedule. You care deeply about your kids, but you’re overworked and getting increasingly frustrated. How do you maintain empathy in this situation?

The need for better teacher training and inclusive classrooms

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Educators increasingly report feeling unprepared and overburdened in Australian classrooms. They’re often left to respond to the hugely diverse needs of children with learning differences, without being given the tools to really think from the child’s perspective and identify what those needs are. In this stressful situation, everyone’s losing out.

Alarmingly, there’s also been a recent spike in cases of exclusion with evidence that prejudice has played a role. In recent studies by the Federal Government, kids with learning differences have been found to have been sidelined from class activities or even suspended. Children with dyslexia or on the autism spectrum are accused of acting out or exaggerating.

Perhaps the most disturbing element of this situation is in the inadvertent lesson that’s being communicated to all the children in the classroom. Teachers don’t just teach content – they teach ethics and morals, leading by example. If a teacher is excluding kids with learning differences, then the other children are learning that it’s ok to exclude those who are different. That’s not a lesson any educator wants to teach.

How to empathise and why teachers need to do it

What do we actually mean when we use the word empathy? According to, there’s an important distinction between empathy and sympathy:

Both empathy and sympathy are feelings concerning other people. Sympathy is literally “feeling with” — compassion for or commiseration with another person. Empathy, by contrast, is literally “feeling into” — the ability to project one’s personality into another person and more fully understand that person.

 Thankfully, California’s Greater Good Science Centre, tells us that empathy is a conscious ‘muscle’ that we can exercise. By imagining another’s life, actively listening to their stories and thinking of commonalities, we can deeply understand what it’s like to be another person.

How can this help teachers?

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Put simply, empathetic teachers deliver better outcomes for students. There’s been a large body of research linking empathetic teaching to emotional development, which in turn affects cognitive development and overall learning outcomes. A ten-year study in Finland, completed in 2015, concluded that teacher empathy was crucial to positive student performance.

In contrast, children who experience a lack of empathy early in life can suffer a host of life-long developmental issues and health problems as a result. This is particularly the case in students who have learning differences. They’re already dealing with the challenges of their conditions, and without adequate attention can fall even further behind than other students.

 As anti-racism activists can testify, storytelling is one of the most powerful tools in the ‘empathy’ box. It can humanise the ‘other’ where statistics cannot. In recent experiments in the UK, sharing stories has found to be a highly effective way of developing empathy among teachers towards parents of and students with learning differences. Not only that, storytelling has found to be an effective way of teaching empathy to children within the classroom.

The ‘Person First’ approach at Torrens University 

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Torrens University has developed an innovative new approach to educator training that draws from this research into empathy and learning outcomes. In a national first, the Graduate Certificate in Education (Learning Differences) has been co-created with the input of children and adults who actually experience learning differences.

This course has been specifically designed to support educators and carers of children with diverse learning differences, including autism, ADHD, dyslexia and dyspraxia. The flexible program structure allows teachers to work while studying, and the course introduces strategies that can be directly implemented in the classroom.

As part of the course, educators learn problem-solving, planning and strategic skills to manage the needs of a diverse classroom. But just as importantly, they also delve deep into the experience of what it is to be a person with learning differences by listening to their stories directly. Recent Torrens graduates who’ve gone through the ‘Person First’ training consistently report that it’s had a profound effect on their understanding of their own students.


Mick Grimley (Dean of Education at Torrens) explains the Person First approach:

“It is essential for parents and teachers to have a deep empathetic understanding of the child’s condition if they are to support the young person with their condition…. The ‘person first’ perspective is useful for this purpose.

 This perspective involves learning about a condition by engaging with the stories of those who have direct experience with it, and then considering how these experiences are similar and different from our own experiences.

 Further, to improve the classroom experience of vulnerable young people it is essential that parents, carers and teachers have common frames of reference… The ‘person first’ approach provides a common set of language and experiences for people to explore, discuss, and understand.”


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