Empathy Training for Kids
When you first hear the word ‘empathy’, what do you think?
Though the expression of empathy is as old as human history, the word itself has only been a part of the English language since 1908. Learn how social scientists are currently defining empathy and gather easy-to-implement, evidence-based exercises to teach empathy to kids in a classroom setting.
What Is Empathy?
Drawing from the Greek roots of em for “in” and pathos for “feeling,” empathy can be broadly understood as the ability to sense and feel another person’s emotions, and the willingness and ability to imagine and respond to their situation and experience (known as affective empathy and cognitive empathy, respectively).
Also known as emotional empathy or shared emotional response, affective empathy describes one’s ability to feel another’s emotions, experience distress over another’s pain or suffering, and act with compassion — all of which can motivate someone to express care or offer help to someone in need.
Example: While pulling a sheet of homework out of their backpack, one of your students gets a papercut on their finger and lets out a yelp as they grab their hand. A nearby student sees their fellow student in pain, mirrors their experience with a grimace or saying “ouch!”, and asks you for a band-aid.
Also known as perspective-taking or “taking a walk in another’s shoes”, cognitive empathy describes one’s ability to understand, or be curious to understand, another’s thoughts, emotions, situation, and behaviors.
Example: During a history lesson on the founding history of the United States, one of your students raises their hands to say, “I bet it was really hard for the Native Americans to unexpectedly lose their homeland to people they didn’t even know. If I were them, I’m sure I’d want to fight to keep it, too.”
The Value of Empathy Training
Empathy is a natural human capacity, though many of us will bump into unconscious or conditioned biases that limit our baseline ability to embody and share it. For instance, we’re generally more inclined to empathize with people who resemble us and the people in our social circle (our “tribe”), and may be limited when we have greater social privilege or don’t agree with another’s behavior.
Fortunately, just like the muscles of our body, empathy can be strengthened and become an integral part of how we engage with the world around us. With consistent practice, empathy training can help your students expand their capacity for empathy and become more inclusive of and compassionate toward people who come from different backgrounds and experiences.
Along with helping us increase our capacity to feel and perceive others’ experiences, empathy training can include self-regulation techniques that support those of us who tend to get overwhelmed when faced with another’s pain or suffering. The foundation of empathy training is becoming attuned to the nuances of one’s own feelings, which can help your students distinguish their experience from another’s and identify when they may benefit from practicing a self-soothing technique.
In short, teaching empathy in the classroom can help your students increase their self-awareness, self-compassion, emotional intelligence, and ability to express genuine interest in and care for the experiences of the people around them.
How to Teach Empathy to Kids
1. Be a living example.
Observational learning is one of the most powerful ways people of all ages learn, and is especially influential for children, who are learning how to communicate and behave with others. Also known as shaping, modeling, and vicarious reinforcement, observational learning is the means through which children learn to imitate the actions, words, and sounds of the people, animals, and objects around them.
Because of this, one of the best ways to teach empathy to kids in the classroom setting is to show them the way. To model empathy, validate your students’ feelings, demonstrate active listening, and show compassion for and curiosity in the experiences of your students and the people and characters you’re studying.
2. Add empathy to imaginative play.
From playing doctor to putting on a theatrical play, imaginative play helps your students feel, process, and understand the world around them. By stimulating your students' imaginations, imaginative play gives your students the opportunity to imagine what it’s like to have another’s experience, develop new language, and practice creative problem-solving.
During imaginative play, encourage your students to practice empathy by asking questions that lead them to consider how the character they’re playing or interacting with might feel during any given moment.
3. Identify emotions in pictures, film, and art.
Learning to name and identify emotions can be a powerful practice for teaching your students mindful self-regulation and empathy. Research demonstrates that labeling emotions—especially fear, anger, and sadness—can influence how the brain responds to emotions. Along with decreasing the intensity of emotional reactivity in the amygdala, the brain’s fear center, labeling emotions can activate the part of the brain associated with emotional regulation and processing (the right ventrolateral prefrontal cortex).
When viewing pictures, portraits, scenes, or movies, ask your students to label the emotions they perceive, what about the image inspires that emotion, and how viewing that emotion makes them feel.
4. Read and study literary fiction.
With the ability to transport us to different worlds and transport us outside of ourselves, literary fiction can be powerful tools for helping us to understand ourselves and the human experience. While other forms of reading, such as non-fiction and genre-fiction, can offer their own enriching experiences, literary fiction uniquely gives your students the opportunity to consider the characters’ motivation and experiences. Why? Because literature tends to center on its characters’ psychology, without revealing all the details of how or why the character thinks or acts in a particular way. Because of this, students are encouraged to imagine what influences and motivates the characters’ behaviors and choices while considering other points of view.
Along with asking your students to identify how and why a character is thinking, feeling, and acting a certain way, ask your students to consider how they may think, feel, and act if they were in the same situation as their characters and had lived the same experience.
5. Practice reflective journaling.
A tool of self-awareness and self-discovery, reflective journaling is the practice of documenting one’s reflections and inner communication on the subject at hand. Less about capturing facts and summaries and more about expressing beliefs and feelings, reflective journaling gives your students the space to discover how the material or an experience has impacted, influenced, surprised, inspired, or changed them.
As a one-time or ongoing assignment, ask your students to answer questions, such as “how did my mind/beliefs/feelings change as a result of this lesson?” or “how did studying this topic make me feel?”
6. Integrate mindfulness techniques.
Along with strengthening your students’ ability to engage in the above techniques, mindfulness is a powerful skill that can support your students’ physical, psychological, and social wellbeing. Mindfulness is our ability to notice our present-moment thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and our environment with a kind and open attitude. Along with helping your students (and you!) notice thoughts and feelings with curious non-judgment, mindfulness empowers the compassionate self-awareness and emotional resilience and regulation that helps us be present with our own experiences and the experiences of others.
Mindfulness practices come in many forms and can be adapted to reach students of every age. For a mindfulness break, guide your students to sit comfortably and close their eyes, or gently focus on one spot on their desk. Invite them to notice the sensation of the soles of their feet on the ground and the sensation of their hands resting on their lap or on their desk. Invite them to notice other sensory cues, such as the sensation of sounds passing through their ears, light passing through their eyelids, or breath passing through their nostrils. Give your students a few moments to sit with and notice their sensations before calmly inviting their attention back into the classroom.