Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)

How to Help High School Students Develop Empathy

Writing exercises, opportunities for cultural exchange, and encouraging active listening can lead to more empathy among teens.

April 9, 2021
Allison Shelley / American Education

High school students spend a lot of time thinking about who they are and who they will be in the world. They think about their upcoming decisions about college and careers. All this naturally pushes them toward a lot of concern with “I.” Educators need to help ensure that the “we” stays in the picture as well. And that’s why it’s necessary to encourage empathy in high school.

8 Ways to Help High School Students Show Empathy

1. Give students a chance to express their feelings about losses. When adolescents don’t feel like they belong, they feel great despair. Now more than ever, adults must be sensitive to how much loss can destabilize high school students because it shakes their feelings of belonging. Losses in their families, not being able to interact with friends, missing teams and performance groups… these and more are being carried by high school students all the time. Particularly when students return in the fall, very early in the school year, show your empathy toward students by giving them an opportunity to write about losses. You can make it personalized, or you can allow it to be hypothetical, in which students will pour their actual feelings into prose, poetry, or other forms of artistic expression.

2. Use the prompt, “How do you think that person/those people felt?” Regardless of subject area—reading a novel, talking about scientific accomplishments, reviewing events in history, reading stories about the contemporary world—asking students to understand the emotions of the people involved exercises their empathy muscles. After a while, they will start asking themselves this question without your prompting—a key aspect of empathy.

3. Create an exchange program. Empathy and taking others’ perspectives go hand in hand. So arrange for your students to have regular exchanges—via class-to-class Zoom or the pen-pal approach (whether via old-fashioned paper or email)—with people who come from different backgrounds and situations. Consider partnering with a school overseas. Help with this can come from the European Network for Social and Emotional Competence or the Mandela Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders through Rutgers University Professor Ronald Quincy. He can help connect teachers with Mandela fellows who are often teachers in Africa. You can also make arrangements with senior citizen centers, youth detention facilities, Veterans Administration centers, the Wounded Warrior Project, and related organizations. The possibilities are endless.

4. Have students study characters from books. Your students can learn by carefully observing characters they’re reading about. Ask them to consider a character’s perspective. Then have them discuss their interpretations with the class or small groups. For an added challenge, ask your students to write dialogue they anticipate might happen in upcoming chapters, using the author’s writing style as a guide.

This is an exercise that needs to be handled very carefully; the goal is to help students see other perspectives, but there’s a risk that they will denigrate others instead—for example, by replicating stereotypes or prejudices.

[Editor’s note: This exercise has been updated since the article was first published.]

5. Listen, really listen. It’s natural and all too common for students in classes and groups to worry about what they’re going to say and not listen to others. Here is a simple antidote: Ask students to repeat the response of a classmate before giving their answer (“Afghouli said, ‘I think…’”). Cognitive psychologist Irv Sigel, who studied question asking and answering extensively, noted that there is no need to do this all the time. Once you intersperse this kind of request regularly and at varying intervals in a class, students will start to anticipate and listen more carefully.

6. Assign an essay on “me at my best.” To help leaven “I” with “we,” ask students to write an essay (in whatever format they are learning in their English classes) with this focus: When am I at my best? With whom and when? How and why does the presence of others help me be better?

7. Ask students about the movie that moves them most. Then, ask them to do the following assignment about it. Once they have done so, they can share in pairs and small groups and report out on one another’s perspectives. This definitely has a broadening effect, as students tend to think everyone will see a “moving movie” the same way that they do.

  • What is the movie?
  • Summarize the plot.
  • Name the main characters and describe their personalities, especially how they treat others.
  • Identify three parts of the movie that gave you the strongest emotional reactions. What emotions did you feel and why?
  • What was it about the movie that led you to empathize with it so much—to have the reactions intended by the writer, director, and actors?

8. Show students how to succeed and fail at interviews. Throughout high school, students will find themselves in interviews for various kinds of positions, and this will lead to college and career-related interviews in their senior year. Lynne Azarchi, author of The Empathy Advantage and inspiration for this blog, believes students need to know that interviewees are most successful when they can take the perspective of the interviewer. In advisories and group-guidance experiences, time can be devoted to these questions: What are interviewers looking for? What do they not want to see? After getting some discussion by students, be sure these key points are covered:

Desirable qualities:

  • Good formal email communication
  • Respectfulness during the whole interview process, including to all staff
  • Preparation—knows about the company, business, or school
  • Commitment to being a team player
  • Willingness to go out of one’s comfort zone
  • Concern for others; can speak about interest and involvement in some social, environmental, charitable, or service causes

Undesirable qualities:

  • Wandering eyes
  • Weak handshake
  • Very short answers

Inability to read and match the interviewer in terms of loudness of voice, speed of speech, posture; disinterest in a long response

The importance of empathy—and its close cousin, compassion—is becoming more and more clear as we see what’s happening in the world around us. Let’s be sure to prepare our high school students to contribute as more considerate and caring citizens.

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  • 9-12 High School

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