Teaching empathy is important. In the simplest of terms, empathy is the ability to notice, understand, and share the emotions of others. It is a critical social skill for all people to have. In many ways, empathy is the social skill that paves the way for all other social skills. It helps us to take someone else’s perspective, understand each others’ emotions, connect with one another, show compassion, make good social choices, and ultimately develop lasting relationships.
What does a lack of empathy look like? Learners who lack empathy can end up with many social challenges. These kids and young adults may struggle to build friendships, have difficulty working with others, and make poor social decisions overall. Most importantly, kids and young adults who lack empathy are often unaware their behaviors can negatively impact others. These learners might do or say something that makes sense to them in the moment, without giving consideration to those around them.
Learners who lack strong empathy skills might:
- Do or say something that appears rude or inappropriate, such as loudly commenting on someone else’s pimple.
- Engage in socially unexpected behaviors, such as cutting to the front of the line when they want to be first.
- Make comments that hurt others’ feelings, such as telling someone their shirt is ugly.
- Fail to recognize times to be sensitive to others, such as mentioning how much they love their dog right after a friend’s dog passes away.
How can educators build empathy? It is critical for educators to recognize that having a lack of empathy is a skill deficit and not a behavior problem. In the words of Ross Greene, “Kids do well if they can.” There are many ways to teach, highlight, and practice skills for empathy, so these abilities can be learned over time. If you want to get started right away, I have created a whole unit targeting perspective-taking and empathy. It’s important to note that some learners are going to struggle with these skills more than others. What’s important is that you work on them slowly and watch the skills grow. Quite often, these strategies can be integrated into the classroom to help support a positive learning community for all. It’s a win-win!
Here are some strategies for building empathy:
Use literature. Using short stories and novels, you can help learners to think about the emotions and motives of characters. You might ask: How do you think they feel right now? Why do they feel that way? What might they be thinking? How would you feel if you were in their shoes? What might they do next? Best of all, using literature is an easy way to integrate social-emotional learning since it’s something that teachers teach every day!
Teach “being in someone else’s shoes.” Use situations to encourage students to think about how they might feel. Then, go the extra step and have students think about how someone else might feel. This is a critical component of empathy because how we feel might not be how someone else might feel. It’s a skill that can sometimes require lots of practice and discussion with others.
Watch videos and movie clips. Similar to literature, videos and movie clips can be a strategy to think about the emotions of characters. This may be a helpful tactic for learners who struggle with reading or just a fun activity for the end of the week. Just play a quick video clip (or watch a whole movie) and discuss the characters’ feelings, thoughts, motivations, and reactions.
Talk about emotions. Talking about feelings should be normal and expected in the classroom! Model using I-statements and teach about different emotions as they come up.
Use optical illusions to teach perspective-taking. Optical illusions are a fantastic way to teach perspective-taking because they show students that we all think differently and that’s okay! Simply show an optical illusion and have students independently write down what they see. Then, have them discuss. Soon, students will realize that they don’t all see the same thing. It’s a great way to start the discussion on perspective-taking and empathy. You can use this free perspective-taking lesson to try right away!
Keep an emotion vocabulary board. Improve each student’s emotional vocabulary by keeping a board posted with all different emotion words. Students should recognize that there are multiple shades to every emotion, from irritated to irate and content to elated. Make these words part of the norm so that students can learn to use them effectively.
Identify emotions in photos. Get random old magazines or use your own photos. Have students look through magazines or photos to find images of people. Encourage them to identify how each person might be feeling or thinking. This is such a fun activity that can be done again and again.
Teach social cues. Learners who struggle with skills for empathy can greatly benefit from learning about facial expressions, body language, and tone of voice. These can be critical cues for them to start recognizing the thoughts and feelings of others. This can be fun to teach as “social detective work.”
Role-play social scenarios. Discuss a variety of social situations and have students act out what they might do. For example, “Imagine you see someone fall down in the hall. What would you do?” This social situation encourages students to think about how someone else might feel as well as how they should respond. Come up with your own scenarios to discuss or use task cards. I have created social scenarios for elementary students and social scenarios for middle and high schoolers. Start off with this free social problem-solving task cards set to see how your students do!
Play empathy games. For learners who struggle with empathy, it is a difficult skill to learn. Games can be a highly motivating way to learn these skills. I developed a fun empathy game with many different scenarios to help learners think about how others feel and how they might show empathy to others. Best of all, there are so many scenarios that kids can play again and again.
Watch animal live cams. Who doesn’t love animals? I’ve found that kids who really struggle to show empathy with other kids are still very likely to empathize and care about animals. With that, there are many free animal live cams you can stream. In my classroom, we loved watching an owl cam, a bald eagle nest, and even a giraffe who was about to have a baby. Of course, there are many ways to integrate science, reading, and writing to any of these animal live cams. This can be a great way to help kids learn to care about and for something else.
Have a daily morning meeting. It’s important to give every student a daily check-in time. Every child and young adult needs to know they are valued, loved, and supported. Use a 10-minute morning meeting time to check-in with students and let every voice be heard.
Teach coping strategies. Kids and young adults need effective strategies for managing their tough emotions. Spend time teaching, discussing, and practicing a variety of strategies that might work for them. Practice mindful coloring, listening to music, exercising, and even yoga. It’s important to practice these activities when students are calm so that they can use them when they really need them the most. Use these coping strategies visuals or grab this free coping strategies list to give you some ideas on how to start! Also, read up on some fun and unique ways to teach coping strategies to kids and young adults.
Start an emotion journal. Help students connect with their own emotions by journaling and writing about how they are feeling. This is something that can be done first thing in the morning to help students start the day off in a positive way. Give time for students to share their feelings if they are comfortable. Not only will students benefit from expressing themselves, but others will build empathy by hearing the thoughts and feelings of those around them.
Teach how to see the other side. Learners need to understand that we all have different opinions and thoughts. Use topics such as “favorite pizza” and “best sport” to drive conversations about differences of opinions. Help all students see that we all think differently and that’s perfectly okay.
Give responsibilities. Use student strengths and abilities to give every student
Teach how our words matter. Have each student draw a heart on paper and cut it out. Talk about different things we can say to each other that can be kind or hurtful. For each statement, have students make a fold in their heart. At the end of the activity, open the heart back up and discuss that the marks are still there long after the words have been said. Remind students that our words leave a lasting impact so it’s important to stop and think about what we say to each other.
Build confidence. Sometimes kids and young adults who lack empathy appear to be over-confident because they don’t seem to care how others feel in the moment. However, this can actually be superficial. These learners may actually struggle with feelings of rejection from their peers, leading to lower self-confidence. Make sure to spend time on building every child up and helping them share their strengths, passions, and dreams. When kids feel better, they usually do better, too. Use these confidence-building activities to get started.
Collaborate with school specialists. If you have a student who is struggling with showing empathy, talk with the school counselor or social worker for additional input and ideas. It might even be beneficial to have them come into your class for a quick lesson or activity.
Practice mindfulness. Kids and young adults can greatly benefit from learning to be in touch with their own emotions first and foremost. Spend 5 or 10 minutes practicing mindfulness after lunch, before a big test, or just to start the morning out in a more positive way. Read up on ways you can practice mindfulness and some free resources to help you practice mindfulness with students.
Encourage random acts of kindness. Kindness is about being thoughtful without expecting anything in return. Teaching and encouraging kind acts can help learners start to think about the feelings of others. You can start a random acts of kindness jar or bulletin board in the classroom. When a student witnesses a kind act, have them write it on a slip and post it. At the end of the month, you can choose to pick one randomly to win a special reward.
Engage in community service. Empathy and compassion go hand-in-hand. Encourage learners to think about the community and world by doing community service acts. Spend time cleaning up the courtyard, visit another class to read books to younger students, or even come up with a plan to donate supplies to a local animal rescue organization.
Start a kindness share. Give each student a piece of paper (have them cut it into a heart if you want!). Have students write their names on the paper and pass it to their right. When they get a piece of paper, they should write something kind about that person right on the paper. Continue the share until all students have written something kind about someone else. At the end, every child will have given back AND gotten kind words in return.
Teach students to respectfully disagree. Part of building empathy means recognizing that others can think differently from you. Help students learn the skills to accept and respect the opinions of others when they disagree. Encourage students to use phrases like, “I see your point,” and “I have a different point of view, but I see where you are coming from.”
Teach social-emotional learning explicitly. Give social and emotional learning the time it needs by dedicating time each day or week to these skills. One of my favorite strategies for this is using a daily
Do you have other strategies for building empathy? I’d love to hear