Empathy is defined by A Very Well Mind as, “the ability to emotionally understand what other people feel, see things from their point of view, and imagine yourself in their place” (Cherry, 2020).
Many studies have been published asking if humans are born with empathy or if it’s something that is learned. In a recent study of 46,000 people, scientists concluded that “empathy is not just something we develop through our upbringing and life experiences — it is also partly inherited” (Therrien, 2018). And, according to the authors behind the popular growth mindset Big Life Journal for kids, tweens, and teens, “like any skill, empathy can be taught and developed in children. Because cognitive abilities and life experiences develop over time, the most effective strategies to use depend on the child’s age” (Cullins, 2021).
Why is empathy important to teach students?
Empathy helps students:
- Build positive friendships and relationships.
- Reduce conflict and misunderstandings.
- Resolve conflicts peacefully.
- Exhibit helping behavior.
- Show kindness toward others.
While you can’t control your student’s genetics, teachers can have an influence over students in helping them to develop and grow to be more empathetic. How? Start by following the ideas and examples below.
Set a good example by modeling empathetic behavior to your students. Listening without jumping in right away to give advice or trying to solve anything is a great example of modeling empathy. Focus on whomever is speaking without distraction. This will model respect because you are showing your students that you SEE and HEAR them and that they are important. You can also help your students think about the emotions of others. For example you can ask, “Why do you think he’s angry? How would you feel if that happened to you?” This model of respect will exhibit behavior that your students can learn and practice with others.
Label and Discuss Emotions
Foster a classroom where emotions are talked about openly and not dismissed. As an adult, if a student is upset, instead of reacting or trying to fix it, acknowledge the emotion(s) that your student is feeling. For example if a student is crying you could say, “Joey, you seem sad right now. Do you need some time? Let me know if you’d like to talk about it.”
Putting this concept into practice:
- Elementary Students: Read stories out loud. Ask your students how the characters might be feeling in certain circumstances and why.
- Middle School Students: Engage your class in higher level discussion about book character’s feelings. Ask your students how they felt about the main characters or plot. Can they relate to the characters in any way? Discuss different points of view. It may change your student’s feelings toward the characters.
- High School Students: Discuss current events and label emotions along the way. Encourage your students to reflect on their own feelings about the current events. Are they scared, angry, wanting to take action? Again, discuss different points of view.
Find ways to encourage your students to help others at home, school, or in the community. It doesn’t have to be big to count. Complimenting a friend, holding a door, and bringing groceries in for a neighbor are all small acts of kindness that add up. Here are some examples for different age groups:
- Elementary Students: Make thank you cards to send to troops overseas or for your local senior center. Talk about how little acts of kindness will make others feel happy. Ask students to write down and accomplish small chores they can do to help their parents at home.
- Middle School Students: Students can kick-start a canned food drive or coat drive for the homeless. They can visit an elderly family member or neighbor. They can even welcome a new student or neighbor with a small token, such as a handwritten card.
- High School Students: Provide volunteer opportunities for students to engage with the local community. Many students want to help but they don’t know where to start. Work with your school’s guidance department or career center to identify different opportunities that appeal to students with varying interests.
Take time to recognize students when you see or hear them exhibiting empathy toward others, and be specific. “I saw Jill was having trouble with her math. Then I saw you go over to help her. That was so kind and thoughtful. I’m sure she really appreciated your help.” Positive reinforcement encourages more empathetic behavior in the future. Here’s an engaging guide to praising children.
To Learn More:
Check out our partner Steve Barkley’s latest podcast for parents and share with your student’s parents:
Podcast for Parents: Parents Cultivating Empathy
This podcast contains some specific ways parents can support youngster’s continuous development of increasing depth of empathy.
PLS Classes offers several graduate level courses for educators that can help you foster a culture of empathy and kindness in the classroom. Our course Social-Emotional Learning: Essential to Student Success™ focuses on the importance of empathy, perspective-taking, communication, teamwork, social justice, and global citizenship, and more.
Cherry, K. (2020, May 2). Why empathy is important. Verywell Mind. Retrieved March 10, 2022, from https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-empathy-2795562
Cullins, A. (2021, October 22). Key strategies to teach children empathy (sorted by age). Big Life Journal. Retrieved March 10, 2022, from https://biglifejournal.com/blogs/blog/key-strategies-teach-children-empathy#:~:text=And%20like%20any%20skill%2C%20empathy,by%2Dage%20ideas%20and%20activities
Therrien, A. (2018, March 12). Genes have a role in empathy, study says. BBC News. Retrieved March 10, 2022, from https://www.bbc.com/news/health-43343807