George Lucas Educational Foundation

Empathy in the Classroom: 3 Steps for Implementation

Empathy in the Classroom: 3 Steps for Implementation

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Bullying. Targeting on social media. School violence. 

These are words commonly heard in the education community today. As teachers, we spend time in staff development and training, learning how to combat these issues. We learn how to recognize bullying, teach responsible social media habits, and respond to an active shooter. But what if we took a different approach? What if we started by explicitly teaching empathy in the classroom? 

Webster's dictionary defines empathy as: the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experiences of another without having the feelings, thoughts, and experiences fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner. 

By teaching students these skills in an authentic way, will they see each other differently? Will they begin to be sensitive to the experiences of another? It's worth finding out. 

With time being limited in the classroom, many teachers worry that they can't possibly squeeze one more bit of instruction into the day, but I promise you can! Here are three easy steps to help you immediately implement empathy education into your classroom. 

1. Use literature

One of the first ways that students experience empathy is through exposure to literacy experiences. Characters and conflicts in books can expose children to a range of social situations that children may or may not have experienced themselves. By exposing them to literacy resources, teachers can prompt and guide discussions related to characters' emotions, as well as children's personal feelings about characters or conflicts in the story. These discussions will allow students to engage in empathy practices. 

The use of literature is a step that can be taken at any level of education. Elementary school students often interact with literature to learn how to make friends and form early relationships. Middle and high school students will build on these early skills and use literature to expand relationship building into their communities and beyond. 

2. Reflective Journals. 

Being reflective is a difficult skill for people of all ages. People do things that they are not proud of, say things they don't mean, and act in ways they normally wouldn't when trying to impress someone. This is where reflective journals come in. 

Have students write 2-4 times a week for 10-20 minutes on a prompt related to empathy. Journal responses can further discussions about how students are treating each other. It forces students to think about their actions and how they impact others. When students are forced to be reflective, they may not always like what they see. This is where empathy begins. 

Prompts can be simple, such as: 

  • Did you show kindness to your classmates today? How? 
  • What can you do to help someone at home? 
  • How would you feel if someone called you names or picked on you? 

Or, journal entries may become more complex as students age or as empathy understanding increases: 

  • How would you feel if you didn't have a home or safe place to live? 
  • What would you do if you saw a friend harassing someone on social media? 
  • How would you respond if you found out a classmate was being bullied?

Pushing students to become more reflective may help them build on their understanding of others' thoughts and feelings, and improve how they respond to one another in difficult situations. 

3. Create real life empathy opportunities

What better way for students to learn empathy than to experience it firsthand? Creating opportunities for students to experience empathy in a way that is authentic can be the best way for them to apply what they have learned through literature and reflective journals. There are a multitude of experiences available for students, but here are a couple of examples to consider: 

  • Get to know your classmates: Often empathy breaks down because students are unable to see how much they have in common. Have students get to know each other! This can be done in a low-risk way by asking students to: 
    • Interview a classmate that they don't know well
    • Eat lunch with someone different
    • Partner with someone they don't know for an empathy literature discussion
  • Start a Random Acts of Kindness project: Once a week, have students show a random act of kindness for another person. This may be a classmate, or someone else in the school outside community. It may be as simple as writing a letter thanking someone for what they do, helping someone with a project they are working on, or inviting someone new to spend time with you. Use the journal to have students reflect on how it made them feel to show kindness, and how they feel their kindness impacted others. 
  • Get involved with a charity: Invite representative from a charity to come to your classroom and explain what they do. Ask what your students can do to help the cause and organize a volunteer day. Getting students involved in charity work is a great way to build empathy!

As educators, we understand that there is no single solution to the problems that plague schools, but if we begin to engage students in empathy, perhaps we can promote understanding, sensitivity, and awareness of those around us so that students may carry these skills into the world. 

This post was created by a member of Edutopia's community. If you have your own #eduawesome tips, strategies, and ideas for improving education, share them with us.

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Ann Dirks's picture

Hello! I certainly like your approach and definitely agree that empathy should be modeled and taught in school--and in the work place. One method I utilized in my classroom (2nd-3RD grade self contained classroom) was to present my students with a scenario and have them solve it as a group, such as, "What can you say to someone who has pushed you in the hallway?" My students would discuss the issue, how it made them feel and what they could say or do about it. Once we agreed on the responses, they would practice with each other. There were other methods my para-professional and I utilized to build a supportive environment but your point is well taken! Teach empathy!

Lauren Ayer's picture

Ann, I have utilized that strategy also, and agree it works very well! It certainly opens up some great discussions!

Vicki Bouyers's picture

Great post Lauren! Not having my own class at the moment, just supplying - I often notice bullying within the classroom and out on the playground. For schools that I am regularly at, teachers have let me run a classroom based around drama using bullying scenarios. Each group would prepare a short script, followed by a class discussion. I have found that this little activity has given children an eye opening experience to see what the possible consequences bullying can have.

Thank you for tips as well!

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