Cultivate Empathy in Your Students

By Naomi Drew and Christa M. Tinari

Cultivate Empathy in Your StudentsWhat is empathy? Roman Krznaric, author of Empathy: Why It Matters, and How to Get It, defines empathy as, “the art of stepping imaginatively into the shoes of another person, understanding their feelings and perspectives, and using that understanding to guide your actions.” Based on studies conducted by neuroscientists, evolutionary biologists, and child psychologists, we know that empathy is an innate human ability. However, empathic response can be blocked when we stereotype others, believe that our perspective is the only correct one, fail to communicate with others, or don’t understand someone else’s feelings.

Cultivating empathy in kids is absolutely crucial in today’s world. With over 20 percent of students across the United States being bullied, teaching kids how to be more empathic is one of our greatest antidotes. Plus, kids who are more empathic tend to be happier, more successful, and better able to relate positively to others.

With standardized testing and all its ramifications crowding out many character education programs, we need to refocus on what’s really important. Consider this: A major national study of over 10,000 middle schoolers by Harvard’s Graduate School of Education found that almost 80 percent of today’s kids value personal success and happiness over concern for others. Providing empathy training to students at all levels needs to be a priority.

The Harvard report recommends the following steps to help increase kids’ caring and empathy:
1. Create concrete opportunities for kids to practice caring and helpfulness every day.
2. Strengthen students’ ability to listen to and understand the perspectives of others.
3. Guide them in expanding their “circle of concern” so they can see beyond themselves and their immediate group.
4. Teach them how to manage difficult feelings like anger, shame, and jealousy.
5. Model all of the above and provide examples of positive role models.

Below are some easy-to-use activities, many from our upcoming book, that will help you do this. We know that making the time is challenging, but doing so will ultimately improve your classroom’s atmosphere and provide long-term benefits to your students.

1. Help kids practice caring and helpfulness by instituting a Random Acts of Kindness ritual in your classroom. Do it daily and vary the activities since kids get bored easily. For tons of simple ideas, visit

For an inspiring, real-life story about how acts of kindness impacted an entire school, watch this wonderful video about Pitt River Middle School. You’ll be blown away!

2. Incorporate writing and discussion activities about empathy into your week. Use quotes, current events, personal experiences, and examples from novels as prompts. Here’s a wonderful quote and follow-up questions to get you started:

“I am another you.”
—Mayan saying.

Ask, “What do these words mean to you? How are you like all other human beings, even those who appear to be different from you? What are some things every single person needs? What can we do to show kindness to “other you’s,” especially those who seem different?”

3. Pair up students who don’t normally connect and have them interview each other using the questions below. Afterward, have them write about the similarities they discovered in the process.

  • What’s something you’re good at?
  • What would you like to get better at?
  • What makes you happy?
  • What makes you sad?
  • Who do you really admire? Why?
  • What do you care about most in the entire world?

4. Help your students become better listeners. Ask them how they know when they are truly being listened to. Ask, “What specific things can you do to show that you’re really interested in what another person is saying?” Help students come up with a listening checklist that includes things like:

  • A Leader’s Guide to The Kids’ Guide to Working Out ConflictsFocus on what’s being said rather than on your own thoughts.
  • Look at the person who’s speaking and turn your body toward them.
  • Refrain from interrupting.

You can use your checklist throughout the day to help students continuously hone their listening skills.

(Bonus! Download Check Out Your Listening from A Leader’s Guide to The Kids’ Guide to Working Out Conflicts. Have students complete this self-assessment and ask them: What did you discover about your listening skills? What do you do well? What needs improvement?)

5. Help students identify and manage feelings. Doing so is an important step in helping them develop empathy. Simple feelings check-ins can increase emotional vocabulary and build emotional intelligence. Try the following simple activity either orally or in writing:
Today I feel ____ because ____. Today I want to feel ___. When I feel ___, I usually ____. I might also _______.

Feeling cards with realistic facial expressions can also help students improve their ability to recognize, identify, and manage emotions. For more information, watch this video on teaching emotional intelligence skills.

6. Share the good news; empathy is everywhere. Have students watch this video for a wonderful example of empathy in action. Then ask these following questions, “Why did the man hold the stranger’s hand? Why were people so touched by this? What simple acts can we do for others?”

Finally, be sure give your students positive feedback when you notice them expressing empathy toward others. Although empathy is a natural human ability, it often takes awareness and courage to put it into action. Let your kids know that every act of empathy makes the world better.

Naomi Drew, M.A., is recognized around the world for her work in conflict resolution, peacemaking, and anti-bullying. She is the award-winning author of seven widely used books, including her most recent, No Kidding About Bullying. Her landmark book, Learning the Skills of Peacemaking, was one of the first to introduce peacemaking into public education. Her work has been featured in magazines and newspapers across the United States, including Time, Parents, and The New York Times. For more information, visit

Christa TinariChrista M. Tinari, M.A., is a nationally recognized safe schools specialist who has worked with thousands of teachers and students to prevent bullying and implement social-emotional learning in the classroom. A former Student Assistance Counselor, she is the founder of PeacePraxis Educational Services, creator of the Feel & Deal™ Activity Deck, and co-creator of the School Climate Thermometer®. She can be reached at and at

Naomi and Christa are currently collaborating on a forthcoming book for middle school educators from Free Spirit Publishing.

Free Spirit books by Naomi Drew:

The Kids' Guide to Working Out ConflictsA Leader’s Guide to The Kids’ Guide to Working Out ConflictsNo Kidding About Bullying

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