How to Teach Empathy in the Classroom

Holly D. Elmore
Holly D. Elmore
Elementary school principal; M.A.Ed. in Educational Leadership, M.A. in Special Education
Small group of students in a classroom embracing each other and smiling.

In a generation that is full of selfies, self-love, and selfishness, the significance of empathy in the classroom is greater than ever before. Compounded by the isolation of a pandemic and a lack of community, students need adults who are keenly aware of the provocative emotion triggered by traumatic circumstances. Strong models of empathy should be expected from our educators and mimicked by our students. Demonstrating empathy in the classroom allows teachers to recognize the feelings of their students and themselves without lowering expectations. Empathy is the highest of knowledge because the perspective shifts from the ego to others and we can operate as a learning community.

Types of Empathy

There are three types of empathy:

Emotional empathy — the practice of feeling what another person feels.

Cognitive empathy — putting yourself, mentally, in another’s shoes.

Compassionate empathy — action toward someone because of their circumstance; “helping”.

Why is Empathy in the Classroom Important?

Understanding that the world does not revolve around “me” is a pivotal moment for many; however, when the instruction within a classroom is centered around how others feel, interpreting their emotions, and then learning what responses are appropriate provides our students with a skill set and knowledge level that supersedes content frameworks.

Students learn compassion, healing, and understanding when we seek to value the experiences of others and respect their responses without it provoking a defensive reaction within us but, contrarily, igniting a passion to empower those who are marginal or dive deep into the roots of the actions of those who have been heralded a villain.

When students develop empathy, they tap into the nurturing instinct, caring for and playing well with others, and learning to trust those around them. As a result, children become more confident in their relationships resulting in security, positioning students to be ready to learn. The communal effects of emotional intelligence carve out a space for inclusion and acceptance of what students may not yet understand. The offensive nature can be thrown off and students can befriend the broken, the lost, the intelligent, and the average, and our classrooms truly becoming learning communities rather than individuals in a class learning content.

Strategies for Teaching Empathy

Modeling

Regardless of age, students benefit from knowing what an abstract concept looks like in practice. Humans constantly seek validation in their actions by looking around. Intentionally modeling empathy in a classroom provides a readily available stream of examples for students to analyze the responses, adopt the mindset, and implement amongst peers. When a student recognizes a wrongdoing toward another, you may ask, “What do you think you need to do next?” As an adult, when a child becomes upset, rather than reacting, you could acknowledge the emotion they are feeling and then ask what they are going to do to best handle that emotion toward another.

“I am upset right now so, I am going to think about it, and then I am going to talk to you about how I feel and how we can work on a solution together. The importance with this is actually going back and telling Johnny why I am upset.”

Modeling conflict resolution and utilizing empathy is advantageous for all students.

Observing Others and Discussing Body Language

When students are exhibiting emotions, seeking to understand can be demonstrated by stating the emotion you are currently observing and then allowing them the opportunity to debrief, or providing an opportunity to remove themselves from the situation for a moment demonstrates empathy.

Preschoolers stomp when they are mad. “Jill, you are stomping your feet? I can tell you are mad. What happened?”

As a high school assistant principal, when I had two friends in my office in the midst of conflict, I would address the hurt individual and make statements regarding my observations. “Jane, your fists are clenched and your face is red. I can tell you are angry, and I am sorry something has caused this. Would you like to tell us why you are feeling this way?”

In a middle school classroom, if a student is crying because of a breakup, you acknowledge the tears and allow that student to go to the restroom to take a break.

Invest in Others

When we know others are in a difficult situation, promoting compassionate empathy is great at any grade level. Passion projects, collecting items for a local food bank, making cards for the local nursing home, and fundraising for a cause are all ways to help students learn how important it is to work as a community and recognize there are others in the world they can help.

Listen to Understand, Not Respond

Scenarios where students have to listen and understand another student’s perspective rather than responding based on their own experience are a great way to develop good listeners. When a child does something that would provoke a negative reaction, rather than punishing the student immediately, putting yourself on their level and allowing them to explain why they did that helps them still feel valued as a human, even though the consequences may not change.

If a student is looking at their cell phone in an eighth-grade classroom, stating, “Put your phone up” without even giving him a chance to explain why it was out in the first place is not an example of empathy. You could show empathy by saying, “You do not usually have your phone out. Is there something going on?” Once you understand the student’s perspective, you can choose your course of action. Most likely, they were texting their friends, but it could be that they have an ill parent or they do not know how they are getting home today. Listening to understand is a practice we all appreciate when it is demonstrated towards us.

Empathy is lacking in many forms in our society today. Teachers have a unique platform to make a change in how students feel when they are in your presence. The old adage states, “No one cares how much you know until they know how much you care.” If empathy is the highest form of knowledge, it is worth our investment of time and practice to incorporate and build an empathetic community amongst peers within our care. That is how we make an impact on the world.

Want to expand your knowledge on fostering empathy in the classroom? Explore our variety of programs, from counseling to special education and more, and get started today!

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