Teaching Empathy

How do we teach our students how to understand and share the feelings of others? Empathy requires that we feel compassion for others and have the ability to project ourselves into their shoes. Teaching empathy requires that we first are able to empathize with our students. Rather than just teaching content, we consider the content in regards to students’ experience, gender, race, and socioeconomic status. Scotty McLennan, the Dean for Religious Life at Stanford University, suggests, “Expressing care for another is not an innate ability present more naturally in some people than others, but rather a skill that can be taught and nurtured through a supportive educational environment.”

Research suggests that in order to learn empathy, children must develop several component skills:

  • A sense of self-awareness and an ability to differentiate their feelings from someone else’s.
  • The ability to see from another person’s perspective.
  • They must be able to regulate their own emotional responses.

These skills are often difficult for adults to put into practice, so our goal is to strengthen and develop these skills in children.

If students lack strong, supportive caregivers at home, it is especially important that teachers help them deal with negative emotions in a sympathetic problem-solving oriented way. Teaching students “cool down” techniques and taking time to talk to them and process their emotions will help them learn to regulate their emotional responses. Modeling empathy through good teacher-student relationships helps students develop empathy and creates a culture of respect in the classroom.

Role-playing scenarios where students must imagine the feelings of others helps them develop the ability to put themselves in another person’s shoes. Kids Health has developed a series of lessons for students in grades 3-5 which includes role-playing activities, discussion questions and activities. The lessons align with National Health Education Standards and can be found here.

Children need to see what they have in common with other people. Talking about emotions such as fear, grief, worry and anger in a safe, accepting environment helps children realize that these are common emotions. Talking about situations where they have been left out, bullied, and strategies for getting along with others unites students in their ability to share with other people.

Researchers also emphasize the importance of teaching children about the “hot-cold empathy gap”. When we are feeling calm and collected it is hard to think about how “hot” emotions such as anger can influence our decisions. Likewise when in the grip of “hot” emotions, it is hard to realize that they may influence our decision-making. Students can become aware of this by using moments of discomfort as teachable moments. If they are feeling left out, it can become a starting point on how others may have felt when treated the same way. It is also a way to teach children that rather than try to control their urges and emotions, they may have to learn to avoid situations where negative emotions or peer-pressure may arise.

Often the opportunity presents itself when teaching content to imagine what a character or historical figure was feeling when facing a problem. How did the character think, believe, want or feel? How do we know it? Students can participate in book clubs where they discuss how they viewed the characters’ views with their peers, allowing them to compare their perspectives. This allows students to develop an understanding of how an individuals’ experiences can color how they view other people’s feelings and beliefs.

Experiments have shown that just having students mimic facial expressions and body language associated with that emotion can make them experience that emotion. Balled fists, heavy breathing and a scowl, can cause changes in brain activity that are characteristic of anger. This exercise also helps young students develop an awareness of reading other peoples’ emotions. Games like charades help students think about non-verbal communication and which gestures will best convey crucial information. It encourages children to think about perspectives and what other people see.

Praise students for being spontaneously helpful and sympathetic, but resist the urge to give material rewards for this behavior. Research has shown that people are less likely to be helpful when given material rewards. Children need to develop a sense of fulfillment from the act of being sympathetic and helpful. Likewise, take the time after an incident of negative emotions or misbehavior to process how it made others feel, or how it affected other people to help them develop a sense of empathy.

Recess can be a place where young students can practice social skills activities that help them better develop empathy. Teachers of young students can help facilitate taking turns when playing with objects or games. This helps children see the other person as a person to help and share with. Games such as Red Light, Green Light and Simon Says help students practice listening skills, following directions and regulating their own behavior. Working in cooperative teams to build with blocks or other construction materials helps students learn to communicate, negotiate and cooperate. Team sports help students learn sportsmanship, leadership, and conflict-resolution skills.

By teaching empathy, we can help students improve their decision-making skills and ability to evaluate the positive and negative outcomes of their responses to others. We can help create a culture of respect and make school a place where students feel safe and heard.