8 ways to teach empathy in the classroom

Written by Michael Hoon

Primarily based on recognizing and learning to respond to other people’s emotions, empathy in the classroom can aid learning and help foster a more harmonious and respectful classroom. Students who exhibit empathy have been shown to have better test scores—but that’s not really the point. Learning other’s perspectives, including emotions, is a vital part of learning itself.

The good news is that the tools you need to teach empathy in the classroom are readily available because they happen to be the students themselves. How students interact with one another sets the learning environment, and establishing a more open classroom allows them to be receptive to one another’s ideas, fosters individual expression, and encourages engagement with the subject matter.

Have students take part in daily emotional check-ins

When adults are in a bad mood, we often push through it or tamp the emotion down in order to focus on work, which offers a bad model. Start kids off early in life by teaching them that how they feel is key to their educational process.

Teachers know well that they are navigating the emotional complexes of dozens of students each day. Taking the time to have students acknowledge their mood as they enter the classroom lets them know that you are aware they all may be starting out from a different emotional place. Whether that short internal check-in comes via a two-minute writing activity or having young children point to a feelings chart of facial expressions, it emphasizes that emotions are important to communicate and acknowledge within ourselves.

Establish mantras

Encourage your students to develop a positive classroom mantra. School rules are often framed negatively (don’t run in the hallway!) rule breakers may want to run in the hallway because they are specifically told not to by an authority. The class mantra, on the other hand, could be something as simple as be kind“. When students are empowered to develop their own positive mantras, it fosters inclusivity and encourages kids to appreciate one another.

Set up one-on-one chats between peers

Simple face-to-face interactions help students learn about each other’s likes, dislikes, and general lives, which leads down the path to empathy. Have students sit face-to-face to talk to a new peer each day, one-on-one. With younger children, this reinforces listening skills and encourages verbal expression.

Consider a student mentorship program

Whether it’s high school seniors showing freshmen the ropes or third graders helping kindergarteners pick library books, programs that foster interactions across grades have positive benefits for both younger and older student. The older students can remember what it was like to be that younger student and appreciate the perspective of someone outside their age group, while the younger students can learn from their older peers and see how they navigate life as a “big kid.”

Change up classroom layout

Moving the furniture around the classroom can transform the way the teacher and students interact. Desks set in rows, all facing a screen or blackboard, are designed to have students focus on course material. If the teacher is hiding behind a desk, that physical barrier communicates an emotional distance.

The simple act of sitting in a circle can often foster better class discussion, and when it comes to empathy, allows students to see and “read” each other’s faces and develop “emotional literacy” through that face-to-face engagement.

Create a program to foster cross-cultural engagement

Activities that allow students to imagine their world from another person’s perspective can be a powerful learning tool and can foster empathy by encouraging students’ curiosity. Consider the effect of having a pen pal; students learn about cultures across the world through the eyes of another real person—not simply by watching a video or even reading a book. With technology, this kind of cultural engagement can happen via teleconferencing with classrooms across the world.

Use empathy as a conflict resolution tool

When a conflict arises between two students, asking them to articulate how the other person feels or to describe the motivations for their actions, allows students to step outside their own heated emotions and recognize others. At first glance, conflict may appear to be the wrong time to teach empathy; however, when emotions are running high, they are also quite clear and easy for students to recognize. Ultimately, understanding someone else’s perspective in a time of conflict pinpoints its resolution.

Encourage emotional learning through literature

Reading is one way that students step outside themselves. For younger children who can’t yet read, story time can transport them. For older kids, reading nonfiction can instill a “moral imagination” as they learn about social causes from environmentalism to poverty. Then, fiction offers them the chance to walk through someone else’s perspective, to see the world through new eyes, or to experience a world that is vastly different from their own. Offering questions like, How does this character feel? Or How would you feel if this happened to you? can further foster a student’s emotional literacy while engaging course subject matter.

Socialization in school, particularly at the elementary classroom level, is a key aspect of student development, but it should also be a continual focus through middle and high school. When the classroom acknowledges the human side of learning, it creates students who are better listeners and who are open to whatever may come their way as they navigate the world of education.

About the author

Michael Hoon