George Lucas Educational Foundation
Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)

Building Social and Emotional Skills in Elementary Students: Empathy

April 26, 2013
Image credit: iStockphoto

This is part seven of the nine-part series from the Project Happiness curriculum. We are looking at important factors that influence the happiness and social and emotional learning of elementary school age children, helping students learn life skills, manage emotions, and increase empathy. Each blog post features one letter of the acronym HAPPINESS:

  1. H = Happiness
  2. A = Appreciation
  3. P = Passions and Strengths
  4. P = Perspective
  5. I = Inner Meanie/Inner Friend
  6. N = Ninja Mastery
  7. E = Empathy
  8. S = So Similar
  9. S = Share Your Gifts

In this post, we will explore Empathy.

Why is it important to "walk in someone else's shoes?" According to a study by the Brookings Institution, "Higher curriculum standards don't correlate to higher student achievement; empathy does." Empathy is also gaining attention as an important component of emotional intelligence and as a way to reduce bullying. When a person learns to understand and share the feelings of another, the pro-social behavior that results shows up in better relationships, closer friendships and stronger communities -- it's that important!

Here are five steps to cultivate empathy:

  1. Watch & Listen: What is the other person saying, and what is his or her body language?
  2. Remember: When did you feel the same way?
  3. Imagine: How does the other person feel? And how would you feel in that situation?
  4. Ask: Ask what the person is feeling.
  5. Show You Care: Let him or her know that you care through your words and actions.

(You can find lesson plans and additional resources about this at

How is Empathy Being Developed in Schools?

There are many approaches to teaching empathy. Here are ten interesting ways that aspects of empathy are being introduced:

  1. Start with Teachers: At a recent EduCon Conference, an important issue came up. Teacher burnout increases when teachers are expected to be supportive but receive no emotional support at all. One teacher summarized it well: "How can I have empathy for my students when no one will have empathy for me?" The solution one school adopted was to have regular staff meetings in which everyone sat in a circle and shared how things were going. Teachers felt closer to one another in creating a more supportive environment where others cared about how everyone was feeling.
  2. Infants as Educators: Roots of Empathy is a program that brings a neighborhood infant and parent to visit the classroom every three weeks over the school year. Students are taught to observe the baby's development and discuss his or her feelings, which opens the door to students identifying their own feelings and advocating kindness for the baby and for each other.
  3. Validation and Trust: Making sure students have a voice -- and that all voices are heard -- is a building block for empathy. One teacher states:

  4. Power of Teamwork: Working in teams to affect the greater good is a great way to creating a culture of empathy. At AXL Academy, each child is assigned to a "crew" for two years. Inspired by Outward Bound founder Kurt Hahn's quote, "We are not passengers in life, we are crew," students learn to work together and create close bonds with one another and their teacher.
  5. Grading on Character: The school also grades students on character, with big questions like, "What makes a good friend?" broken down into learning outcomes; and with performance targets, which teachers and students use to collaboratively evaluate students' progress.
  6. Practice Emotional Literacy: Having students learn what feelings are (including reading people's faces and body language) as well as how to name those feelings are necessary steps to empathy. If they can learn how to express their feelings and how to interpret when others express feelings, they have important tools for life.
  7. Befriending the "Other": To teach empathy, one school is helping students learn to initiate relationships by becoming friends with students who are different, have a disability, or are new. The motivation is friendship and better relationships.
  8. Students as "Changemakers": When teachers guided students to identify school problems and encouraged them to work together to come up with solutions, this caused a shift in the school culture. In one fourth grade class, the oldest grade in the school decided to create reminders for the younger grades about how to treat each other well. Because of the project, the older students began to see themselves as role models and empathic leaders for the younger kids.
  9. Service-Learning: In Georgetown Elementary Day School, students do grade-wide service-learning projects. In pre-school and first grade, for example, students made sandwiches for a local nonprofit's family support programs. By the fifth grade, students could choose their own service project culminating in four days of service and advocacy.
  10. Encourage Empathy at Home: Empathy is reinforced at home when parents model it. When parents positively demonstrate sharing their feelings in authentic, engaged and non-judgmental ways, kids (influenced by mirror neurons) tend to imitate or mirror the intention and emotional state of what they see. Empathy is a family affair!

Do you see this as an important issue? In what ways have you cultivated empathy in your classroom?

Share This Story

  • email icon

Filed Under

  • Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)
  • Classroom Management
  • Mental Health
  • K-2 Primary
  • 3-5 Upper Elementary

Follow Edutopia

  • facebook icon
  • twitter icon
  • instagram icon
  • pinterest icon
  • youtube icon
  • Privacy Policy
  • Terms of Use

George Lucas Educational Foundation

Edutopia is a free source of information, inspiration, and practical strategies for learning and teaching in preK-12 education. We are published by the George Lucas Educational Foundation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization.
Edutopia® and Lucas Education Research™ are trademarks or registered trademarks of the George Lucas Educational Foundation in the U.S. and other countries.