George Lucas Educational Foundation
Subscribe to RSS

Building Social and Emotional Skills in Elementary Students: Empathy

Randy Taran

Filmmaker, Project Happiness
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Pinterest
  • Share

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:
    The students learn that I trust them to be kind, loving and intelligent. And they are learning to trust that I will think of them that way. We learn to trust each other . . . help each other if we fall . . . and use our voices to make change. When children first start to use their voices in the classroom, it provides for a test as to how they may be received. Will they be listened to? Will they be laughed at? Are they important?

  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?

Was this useful?
Project Happiness: SEL Curriculum for Elementary Students
From Project Happiness, this 9-part series includes social and emotional learning curriculum for elementary school students.

Comments (3) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

klogan15's picture
Third grade math and science teacher from Baltimore, MD.

I think the school that brought empathy lessons to their staff meeting is on the right track-- teachers need just as much support as students given how challenging our work is. I teach in an urban public school, and we struggle with empathy and morale on a staff level. I'm looking for additional strategies that schools have used to build community on a staff level. Any suggestions or ideas that have worked in other schools?

Rey Carr's picture
Rey Carr
CEO at Peer Reources

While a couple of the suggested options touch on how students can learn and practice empathy with other students, the peer assistance strategy (formerly called peer counselling, peer helping or peer mentoring) teaches the students the ingredients of empathy and assists them to use those empathy skills to help peers in a variety of ways. It's sad that this wasn't mentioned in the article since thousands of students have been trained using this approach and it has been going for such a long time that hundreds of these students have gone on to train thousands of others at colleges, universities and communities.

jaycrehak's picture
Honors English teacher at Whitney M. Young Magnet High School in Chicago

I agree with the article whole heartedly. My students and I just published a novel entitled 30 Days to Empathy about a high school senior who learns to empathize with each of his classmates after spending one day with each of them. The novel contains teen themes, but is appropriate for 8th graders. I am attaching links so people can view the book online and also purchase it at a discount. Please spread the word to other teachers.

CNN i report

Teachers and students (and others) can buy the book at: Teachers and students who use this website to order 30 Days to Empathy can get $3.50 off per book by using the discount code we created. Here's the code: NKT3GLD9

Facebook Page:

Amazon page for 30 Days to Empathy:

Novel Changes: A crowd sourced novel any student or classroom in the world can participate in creating:

Sign in to comment. Not a member? Register.