Empathy-building ideas for your classroom

It’s not always easy to see someone else’s perspective. Anyone who tries to see from another viewpoint has to take into consideration another person’s past experiences and current emotions.

Understanding what another person is going through requires empathy, which is a learned characteristic.

Recognize types of empathy

Psychologists recognize two kinds of empathy, affective and cognitive.

  • Shared emotional response: Laughter, tears, and high-fives are forms of empathetic shared response. When one person experiences an emotion and elicits a response to that emotion, and another person mimics the same shared response, they have exhibited affective empathy. The experience is often visceral and spontaneous.
  • Perspective taking: Cognitive empathy takes place when a person can imagine what it’s like to be in the shoes of another person. When someone else laughs, cries, or celebrates, an empathetic person who takes their perspective understands why the other person is experiencing those emotions.

Here’s how to develop empathy in your students:

Teach students how to interpret facial expressions

Young children often have a difficult time with empathy. Children who do not learn how to read faces accurately may be less likely to learn how to show empathy as they grow older. They do not understand that particular emotions may cause physiological changes. For example, emotions can cause changes in heart rate, pupil size, and even body temperature.

To teach students how to read faces, show pictures of faces expressing different emotions. Discuss the similarities and differences. Then ask students to make the same faces and notice how the faces make them feel.

Use project-based learning

Sterile assignments with little to no real-world relevance will not encourage empathy. It’s difficult to feel a connection with a random name or event used in a worksheet.

Journalism advisor Michael Hernandez has discovered that real empathy develops from authentic learning experiences, like those in project-based learning. That’s why he took his student to Cambodia. He designed the trip to hone their journalism skills and teach social justice. As a result, students developed greater empathy for those around them.

You don’t have to take your students overseas to develop empathy. Look for opportunities in your own community.

Teach point of view

A new perspective can be what your students need to develop empathy. Not everyone in the world thinks the same, nor do they have the same feelings in similar situations.

To show your students how people see things differently, teach point of view. Diverse perspectives can be found in narratives, poems, and songs. They appear in literature and art. You’ll find them in other content areas as well, including mathematics, social studies, and science.

Model the empathetic behavior you want to see

One of the best ways to teach empathy is to be empathetic. By modeling your concern and compassion for others, you are showing your students what it’s like to be empathetic. That means having positive regard for others in and out of the classroom. Discuss the feelings of characters in the stories you read together, find common ground, and provide a safe environment for expressing differences.

Children who develop empathy are more likely to develop strong relationships with others. They adapt more easily in a variety of social situations, and they are more likely to be problem-solvers.

Empathy is a skill our students cannot do without.

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