6 Action-Based Strategies to Build Empathy in Your Students

During a game of kickball at recess, one of your students drops the ball and his team loses. He slumps his shoulders and fights back the tears. The opposing team cheers. Some of his classmates yell at him; others just look away. One of yours students walks over and gives him a pat on the back. Yes. Empathy.

Some studies suggest that children are born with an innate capacity for empathy. Still, teaching your students to imagine how someone else feels and then respond appropriately can sometimes feel like an uphill battle.

Empathy begins with the ability to take another perspective, but it doesn’t end there. For example, salespeople or actors are able to take on other perspectives but they may not care about others. Empathy includes not only recognizing but also caring about other perspectives and people.

Think about it like this:

Why Empathy Matters

Children with empathy are better equipped to make decisions for themselves without seeking approval from their peers. This skill becomes increasingly important when dealing with the peer pressure that often surrounds bullying behaviors or substance abuse.

Additionally, research shows that a strong sense of empathy is important for personal, relationship and career success. People who are empathic tend to have an easier time navigating social interactions. As a result, they often perform better in school and have greater success in the work force than others.

Strategies to Build Empathy in your Students

Teachers are some of the earliest role models of empathy. Here are some action-based strategies that you can start using today to nurture empathy in your students:

1.Define it.

Empathy is when you’re able to understand and care about how someone else is feeling. One of the best explanations of empathy on the web is from our friends at Sesame Street in an episode when Mark Ruffalo and Murray talk about the word. Watch the video and use it as a starting point for a discussion. Watch here.

2. Take care of yourself.

Teaching can be exhausting and there are situations that can get in the way of our own capacity to empathize. Perhaps you’re stressed or just plain overtired. It’s important to recognize these triggers and take active steps to care for your own mental and emotional health. When you’re in a negative mindset, it’s difficult to make a positive impact on others. In other words, put your oxygen mask on first.

Tip: Make it a priority to carve out time for yourself. Take a walk, read a book, meditate, join an art class, have lunch with a friend. These small things can help you avoid being overwhelmed by stress.

3.Empathize with them.

We empathize with our students when we take a genuine interest in their lives. By getting to know each of our students and what makes them tick, we can then guide them toward activities that they enjoy and that make them feel enriched.

Tip: Ask your students questions. For example, what new and interesting fact did you learn today? Who made you smile today? What challenged you today? How would you most like to spend a day if you could do anything?

4.Model it and point out when others display empathy.

Our students look to us as empathy role models. They’ll notice if we treat a student poorly or if we engage in abrasive or passive aggressive communication with a coworker. On the flip side, they’ll notice if we treat our students and colleagues with dignity and respect. They’ll also notice if we welcome a new student or express genuine concern about a classmate’s family who is going through a difficult experience.

Tip: Make it a point to notice when someone displays empathy or shows a lack of empathy, either in real life, on TV, or in a book. Use this as a starting point for a conversation: Why is empathy important? How can a lack of empathy affect others? How could a situation have been handled differently?

5.Teach them that their own happiness is not their sole priority.

We all want our students to be happy, but it can’t be at the expense of others. We need to send the clear message that caring for others is just as important as their own happiness. Instead of saying “The most important thing is that you’re happy,” try saying “The most important thing is that you are kind and happy.” Say this often.

Tip:. Insist that they are polite, even when they are in a bad mood. If a student is in conflict with a peer or classmate, encourage them to consider their peers’ perspective.Talk through issues with your students to help them see another perspective. Hold morning meetings where you listen to your students and encourage them to listen to classmates to appreciate their differing perspectives. Assign classroom jobs.

6.Provide opportunities outside of the classroom.

It’s relatively easy to feel empathy towards family members and close friends. Show your students that it’s equally as important to care about people outside of their inner circle. Seek out opportunities for you and your class to regularly engage in community service. In doing so, you are showing your students that you care about people from different backgrounds.

Tip: Be conscious to make the distinction between “doing for” and “doing with.” We engage in community service to work with, not for,  different groups of people. This seemingly innocuous distinction will have a major impact on your students’ mindset toward community service.

The development of empathy does not happen overnight. One day, your student may bring you to tears  by patting his classmate on the back. The next day, you may be wringing your hands because he’s having trouble working within a small group. Don’t get discouraged. Take note of the good moments, discuss the not-so-good moments, and continue to model empathy in your classroom.

How do you nurture empathy in your class? Let’s get a discussion going. Share in the comments below.