Four Strategies for Introducing Empathy in the Classroom

By: Caitlin Warren.

Nearly one in three U.S. students say that they have been victims of bullying. Perhaps, then, it’s no surprise that researchers at the University of Michigan have observed a 40 percent drop in empathy among teens over the past three decades.

How can educators reverse this troubling trend? Cultivating–or restoring–empathy is one place to start. As a former elementary teacher, and in my current role supporting teachers, I’ve had the opportunity to observe how students learn–and educators teach–empathy. Here are four tips for educators looking to create more empathic classrooms.

Hold Class Meetings

Class meetings can take many forms. Some teachers choose to open the school year with a class meeting to discuss feelings and emotions, and how students can be empathetic in their interactions with one another. Other teachers hold class meetings when they are needed, often stopping class so they can discuss issues that have arisen in the moment. Whether the meetings are pre-planned or inspired by events happening in and outside the classroom, it’s important that such conversations are common, expected and inclusive.

“One of the best ways [to teach empathy] is to have lots of class meetings,” says Emily Miller, a kindergarten teacher from Austin, Texas. “Discuss feelings and emotions and model [empathy] for them by showing your understanding.”

Read About the World

In the classroom, reading has long been a powerful way to help students see situations from different perspectives. Read aloud sessions, such as “Those Shoes,” help students understand topics such as empathy, but teachers don’t always have to only turn to fictional stories for these lessons. News articles and other nonfiction about current events are also a great tool. They help create opportunities for students to understand what is going on in the world and for them to consider how they would feel in situations facing students in other places.

“We discuss nonfiction articles that are about the lives and circumstances of people from around the world,” says middle school Language Arts teacher Kayla Hanson. “Then we talk about how it would feel to go through what those in the article went through. We talk about things that could make their situation easier and how we would treat those people.”

Make Use of SEL Videos and Activities

Reading should always be encouraged, but it’s no secret that most students love video. There’s something immensely helpful about actually seeing empathy play out and today’s teachers now have plenty of video options online to choose from. Following the video, it’s important to further foster the lessons that have been learned through class discussion. Teachers can divide the class into groups to discuss with a few classmates the importance of being kind and understanding, or they can organize other activities highlighting the lesson. These activities can be ongoing, encouraging empathy long after the video was shown.

“[My] students get and make these cute inspirational cards and pass them out to friends who need a little smile,” said Rachel Holderbach, a kindergarten teacher from Gilbert, Arizona. “That person, in turn, looks for another friend who needs it and passes that same card to them.”

Model Empathy Every Day

Teachers and other students can be role models who show students the importance of empathy in their interactions. By using yourself as an example, you can start a thoughtful discussion about feelings in the classroom. Some educators have created peer mentor programs where students take on the role of helping resolve conflicts between students.

Reading and watching videos can provide many great examples for students to model empathy on. But sometimes the best example for students are those they see every day in the classroom.

Caitlin Warren is a former classroom teacher who now leads community engagement for ClassDojo. Follow Caitlin on Twitter at @CaitClassDojo

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