Building Empathy Muscles in the Classroom

Teaching is easier when your students look out for each other, connect with each other, and can self-regulate when challenging situations arise. That calls for empathy. Building empathy requires opportunities to practice, learn, and make mistakes in a safe classroom environment. Here are some ideas to increase empathy in your classroom:

  • Practice naming feelings. When a student is upset, you can connect before you respond by saying, “You seem upset and….”
  • Teach emotional language. You can use an activity like Sad Mad Scared Glad in the Positive Discipline in the School and Classroom Manual as a starting place. The manual has other activities for developing emotional language as well.
  • Use reading and writing to lift out what characters are feeling, thinking and deciding.
  • Make a word wall of feeling words and/or feeling faces for younger students.
  • Practice perspective taking. Ask questions like, “What would you have felt in this situation? What would you have done?”.
  • Listen to students with an open mind and without judgment – honor their feelings, beliefs, and ideas. This models and promotes a culture where students listen to and respect each other.
  • Make time for pair sharing so students hear different perspectives.
  • Recognize that mistakes are opportunities to learn, not failures. Think about how students repair mistakes and rebuild relationships in your classroom. What other skills do they need to be more successful? How can you celebrate mistakes as a launching pad for learning?
  • Learn about the cultures that your students come from. Give opportunities for them to share and teach each other about how they are different and what advantages those differences bring to your classroom. How can you use these differences to make a richer learning environment?
  • Know what you share as humans. Your students also have many things in common. It is easier to empathize with people who are similar to you. How can you also highlight some of the similarities?