A Quick-Guide To Teaching Empathy In The Classroom

by Lauren Ayer, M.Ed.

Bullying. Zero tolerance policy. Targeting on social media. School violence. Active Shooter.

These are words commonly heard in education today. As teachers, we spend a great deal of time in staff development and training, learning how to combat these issues. We learn how to recognize signs of bullying, teach responsible social media habits, and respond to an active shooter. But what if we took a different approach? What if we started by explicitly teaching empathy in the classroom?

By teaching students these skills in an authentic, applicable way, will they see each other differently? It’s worth finding out. With so many curricular and time restraints on teachers, how can we be expected to explicitly teach empathy in a meaningful way?

A Definition Of Empathy

Webster’s dictionary defines empathy as: the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either in the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner; also: the capacity for this.

In How To Teach Empathy, we discussed a definition for empathy:

“University of California at Berkley’s Greater Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life explains empathy. “The term “empathy” is used to describe a wide range of experiences. Emotion researchers generally define empathy as the ability to sense other people’s emotions, coupled with the ability to imagine what someone else might be thinking or feeling.”

Here are three easy steps to help you immediately implement empathy into your classroom.

3 Tips For Teaching Empathy In The Classroom

  1. Use literature.

(See a list of books to teach empathy with we’ve started here.)

One of the first ways that students begin to experience empathy is through exposure to a variety of literary experiences.

Characters and conflicts in books can expose children to a range of social situations that children may or may not have experienced themselves. By exposing children to these resources, teachers can prompt and guide discussions related to characters’ emotions, as well as children’s personal feelings about characters or conflicts in the story. These discussions, as well as strategic questioning on the part of the teacher, will allow students to engage in empathy practices.

The use of literature is a step that can be taken at any level of education. Elementary school students often interact with literature to understand how to make friends and form early relationships. Middle and high school students build on these early skills, and use literature to expand relationship building into their communities and begin to think globally.

There is a wide range of resources available to help you find literature with a strong empathy message. Check out some of these lists of empathy related books to get you started:

  1. Reflective Journals

Being reflective can be a difficult skill for people of all ages. People do things that they are not proud of, say things they don’t mean, and act in ways they normally wouldn’t when trying to impress someone. This is where reflective journals come in.

Have students write 2-4 times a week for 10- 20 minutes on a prompt related to empathy. Journal responses can further discussions about how students are treating each other. It forces students to think about their actions and how they impact others, and allows teachers to gain insight into how students are responding to one another. When students are forced to be reflective, they may not always like what they see. This is where empathy begins.

Prompts can be as simple as:

  • Were you nice to your classmates today? How?
  • What can you do to help someone at home?
  • How would you feel if someone called you names or picked on you?

Or, journal entries may become more complex as students age and empathy understanding increases:

  • How would you feel if you didn’t have a home or safe place to live?
  • What would you do if you saw your friend harassing someone on social media?
  • How would you respond if you found out a classmate came to school every day without eating breakfast?

Pushing students to become reflective in regards to empathy may help them build on their understanding of others’ thoughts and feelings, and improve how they respond to one another in difficult situations.

  1. Create real life empathy opportunities

What better way for students to learn empathy than to experience it firsthand? Creating opportunities for students to experience empathy in a way that is authentic can be the best way for them to apply what they have learned through empathy literature and reflective journals. While there are a multitude of experiences available for students, here are a couple of examples to consider:

  • Get to know your classmates: As teachers, we regularly focus on helping children get along despite their differences. But what about students’ similarities? Often empathy breaks down because students do not see how much they are alike. Have students get to know each other! This can be done in a low-risk way by:
    • Interviewing a classmate that you don’t know well
    • Eat lunch with someone different
    • Partner with someone you don’t know for an empathy literature discussion
  • Start a Random Acts of Kindness project: Once a week (month, or day, depending on what time allows) have students show a random act of kindness for another person. This may be a classmate, or someone else in the school or outside community. It may be as simple as writing a letter thanking someone for what they do, helping someone with a project they are working on, or inviting someone new to spend time with you. Use the reflective journal to have students reflect on how it made them feel to show, and how they feel their kindness impacted others.
  • Get involved with a charity: Invite representatives from a charity to come to your classroom and explain what they do. Ask what your students can do to help the cause and organize a volunteer day. Getting students involved in charity work is a great way to build empathy!

Educators have a great understanding of the bullying and violence problems plaguing students in school today. As educators, we understand that there is no single solution to these problems, but if we begin to engage students in empathy in the classroom, perhaps we can promote understanding, sensitivity, and awareness of those around us so that students may carry these skills into the world around them.

5 Resources For Teaching Empathy In The Classroom

1. Tolerance.org

According to their site, Teaching Tolerance is “dedicated to reducing prejudice, improving intergroup relations and supporting equitable school experiences for our nation’s children. We provide free educational materials to teachers and other school practitioners in the U.S. and Canada. Our self-titled magazine is sent to 450,000 educators twice annually, and tens of thousands of educators use our free curricular kits.”

2. StartEmpathy.org

3. RippleKindness.org

4. Teaching With Diverse Perspectives

5. 28 Of The Best Books To Teach Children Empathy

A Quick-Guide To Teaching Empathy In The Classroom