The Importance of Teaching Empathy (Caring)

Prior to the Enhanced PYP empathy was an "PYP Attitude" attribute. In the Enhanced PYP, it has been subsumed into the Learner Profile under "Caring".  Since empathy needs to be explicitly taught, I encourage PYP teachers to consider teaching empathy as an ATL skill under "Social Skills" (as it is in the MYP). Teach students The Platinum Rule: Treat people as THEY would like to be treated. 

Brené Brown on Empathy

Run Time: 2:53 - Dec 10, 2013

The Empathy Continuum

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Source: IB Innovate Website

How to Build Empathy

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To help educators learn how to build empathy among their school communities, the Making Caring Common Project at the Harvard Graduate School of Education reviewed existing research on empathy and the strategies of evidence-based programs that promote it. Their work shows that there’s more to developing empathy than simply asking students to “walk in someone else’s shoes.”In this resource, you’ll find steps you can take to build real empathy in your students and your community.

Strategies for Building Empathy

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Practicing empathy in the classroom is one of the most important skills a teacher can have., but it’s not always easy to respond to student behavior with empathy. However, you build mutual trust and rapport when you show students you understand and respect their feelings.

Tips for Active Listening

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Active listening skills are necessary for developing an empathetic classroom. See article "Strategies for Building Empathy" - above. We must make our students feel heard and express an active interest in what they are saying and feeling.  As teachers, we do a lot of talking, but we must also invest time in listening. It is imperative to the health of our classroom community that we have excellent active listening skills. Take a look at this information on active listening and try to practice them in your classroom.

Empathy Maps

Run Time: 2:31 - Aug 25, 2021
Use this simple visual tool to make better instructional decisions with your students' strengths and needs in mind.

You, Me and Empathy - Read Aloud 

Run Time: 9:21 - Apr 15, 2020

All About Empathy for Children

Run Time: 4:48 - Apr 29, 2020

Strategies to Teach Children Empathy 

Empathy is a key ingredient in positive friendships and relationships. It reduces conflict and misunderstandings and leads to helping behavior, kindness, and even greater success in life in general. Like any skill, empathy can be taught and developed in children. 

Model Empathy

Any time you want to teach a skill to a child, it’s important to model it yourself. This way, the child understands what empathy looks like, sounds like, and feels like. Plus, it’s easier to teach a skill that you’ve already mastered yourself.

Remember to model empathy even when you’re upset with or giving consequences to a child. This reinforces the idea that empathy can and should be used even when you’re feeling disappointed, hurt, or angry. The more children receive empathy, the more likely they are to offer it to others.

Discuss Emotions

Talk openly about emotions rather than dismissing or burying them. Let’s say a child doesn’t like another child... don’t immediately say, “That’s wrong,” but ask why the child feels that way. This can lead to a discussion about the other child’s actions and why the child might be acting that way (e.g., They just moved to a new school and are feeling angry because they miss their old school and their friends).

Never punish a child for feeling sad or angry. Make it clear that all emotions are welcome, and learn to manage them in a healthy way through discussion and reflection.

Praise Empathetic Behaviour

When a child shows empathy for others, praise the behaviour. Focusing on and encouraging empathetic behaviour encourages more of it in the future.

Make the praise specific: “You saw that [child name] was feeling sad and sat with her during recess to help her feel better. That was so kind and helpful!”

Source: Big Life Journal Website

Empathy Can Change the World

Run Time: 2:23 - May 4, 2014

Empathy Map Template

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3-5 Years - Age-Specific Strategies for Developing Empathy

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Below are some age-specific strategies for developing empathy in children. The age ranges below are a general guide; start with a few activities or ideas that you think will resonate with your child. Some activities introduced to younger children may be carried on into the later years.

Describe and label

Help children recognize their emotions and the emotions of others by describing and labeling (e.g., “You seem angry,” or, “Are you feeling sad?”). You can also promote body awareness, as young children may find it easier to identify emotions based on how it feels in their body. For instance, you might say, “You’re clenching your fists. You stomped your feet. You seem angry.” The more children become aware of their own emotions, the more they’ll recognize and consider the emotions of others.

Read Stories

Here are 29 Books and Activities That Teach Kindness to Children

As you read stories with your students, ask how the characters in the storybooks might be feeling. Here’s one example that That Teaches Kindness to Children:

"Listening with My Heart" by Gabi Garcia tells the story of Esperanza, who learns to be kind both to others and to herself when things don’t go as planned. Gabi Garcia’s free discussion and activity guide include questions and activities related to topics such as empathy. You can ask your child questions like:

You can also read about and discuss how it feels when others are mean with the book "Chrysanthemum" by Kevin Henkes, in which Chrysanthemum loves her unique name—until others start to tease her about it.

"The Day the Crayons Quit" by Drew Daywalt is another great book for discussing emotions with young children. In this colorful story, Duncan just wants to color. Unfortunately, his crayons are on strike. Beige is always overlooked for Brown, Black only gets to make outlines, Orange and Yellow are in a standoff over which is the true color of the sun, and so on.

As Duncan tries to find a way to make all of his crayons on happy, you can talk to children about how the crayons (and Duncan) are feeling. This is also a good way to teach that everyone has different needs, hopes, and dreams, and sometimes it’s hard to find ways for everyone to agree.

Make a "We Care Center"

Dr. Becky Bailey, the founder of SEL program Conscious Discipline, recommends making a We Care Center to teach children empathy. The We Care Center can be as simple as a box containing Kleenex, Band-Aids, and a small stuffed animal. This provides a symbolic way for children to offer empathy to others in distress. For instance, a young child may notice that another student seems sad—or even that the student is sneezing—and offer tissues. This teaches children to be aware of others and to develop an understanding that our responses and actions can have a positive impact.

Coach Social Skills in the Moment

If a child snatches another child’s toy, ask questions like, “How do you think she/he feels? How do you feel when someone takes your toys? Look at his/her face. She/he seems sad. What could we do instead of snatching his/her toy?” At this point, you could teach a more appropriate response to want a toy, such as asking for a turn, making a trade, or playing with another toy while waiting. It’s much easier for children to learn social skills when they are taught in context.

Source: Big Life Journal Website

5-7 Years - Age-Specific Strategies for Developing Empathy

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Below are some age-specific strategies for developing empathy in children. The age ranges below are a general guide; start with a few activities or ideas that you think will resonate with your child. Some activities introduced to younger children may be carried on into the later years.

Play Emotion Charades

Teaching emotions through play is an important way to develop empathy in children. Games and activities can help children learn the language to express and understand complex feelings.

To play emotion charades, take turns acting out emotions and guessing what feeling is being portrayed. After a player has guessed correctly, you can also discuss the emotion with questions like:

Lisette at the Where Imagination Grows blog suggests a helpful variation on this game. She uses the characters from the movie Inside Out to represent different emotions. She cuts out images of the characters and glues each character onto an index card. The performer then draws an index card from a bucket and acts out that emotion. The other children hold up the corresponding Inside Out character figurine to guess the emotion.

Use Pictures

Visuals are another great way to help children learn. If your students seem to have trouble recognizing and/or labeling emotions, cut out pictures from magazines or print pictures from the Internet that show sad, angry, or happy faces. You can also work up to more complex emotions like scared, embarrassed, disappointed, frustrated, etc. As you discuss how the people in the pictures are feeling, you can also ask your students about times they felt the same way. Provide examples from your own life too, showing that even adults grapple with big emotions and that it’s perfectly normal.

Embrace Diversity

A major component of empathy is respecting others from different backgrounds.

“It can be hard for kids to make the jump from how they feel when something happens, to how someone else might feel about the same thing. And sometimes that’s especially hard when the other person looks or behaves differently than they do.” - Rachel Busman, a clinical psychologist

Encourage your students to play  and interact with children of different races, backgrounds, ability levels, sexes, and so on. You can also read books or watch shows featuring children from different racial, economic and/or geographic backgrounds. Help children understand and focus on what they have in common with others.

Observe Others

Deepen your student’s understanding of nonverbal cues by encouraging them to observe other people in a busy public place, like a playground or park. Note the body language of others and guess how they might be feeling. “That child’s head is down, and his shoulders are hunched like this. I think he might be feeling sad. I wonder why he feels that way?”

Teach Healthy Limits and Boundaries

As children grow older, it’s important that they also understand empathy doesn’t mean taking on the problems and needs of everyone around them. It doesn’t mean always saying “yes” or dropping everything to help others.

Teach your students to understand and respect their own needs by following these 3 steps.

Source: Big Life Journal Website

7-9 Years - Age-Specific Strategies for Developing Empathy

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Below are some age-specific strategies for developing empathy in children. The age ranges below are a general guide; start with a few activities or ideas that you think will resonate with your child. Some activities introduced to younger children may be carried on into the later years.

Engage in High-Level Discussions about  Book Characters

Read more advanced books and engage in high-level discussions about what the characters think, believe, want, and feel. How do we know?

For example, read "The Invisible Boy" by Trudy Ludwig, in which a boy named Brian struggles with feeling like he is invisible. He’s never invited to parties or included in games. When a new student named Justin arrives, Brian is the first to make him feel welcome. When the boys team up on a class project, Brian finds a way to shine. The book teaches children that small acts of kindness can help kids feel included and allow them to flourish.

After reading, ask questions like:

In one experimental study, 110 school children (aged seven years) were enrolled in a reading program. Some students were randomly assigned to engage in conversations about the emotional content of the stories they read. Others were asked only to produce drawings about the stories. After two months, the children in the conversation group showed greater advances in emotion comprehension, the theory of mind, and empathy, and the positive outcomes "remained stable for six months."

You can select books to read with your children that are directly related to empathy. Alternatively, notice what your children are reading and engage them in conversations about the characters, their emotions, and what your child might think, feel, or do in similar situations.

Loving-Kindness and Compassion Meditation

Studies show that as little as two weeks of training in compassion and kindness meditations can lead to changes in brain chemistry that are linked to an increase in positive social behaviours, including empathy. These meditations also lead to increased positive emotions and social connectedness, in addition to improved health. Loving kindness meditation involves thinking of loved ones and sending them positive thoughts. Later, your students can expand their positive thoughts to more neutral people in her life as well. The four traditional phrases for this meditation are, “May you feel safe. May you feel happy. May you feel healthy. May you live with ease.” The exact wording you and your students use aren’t important; it’s about generating feelings of kindness and warmth. 

With compassion training, children visualize experiences in which they felt sad or upset, then relate to these experiences with warmth and care. They then repeat the exercise with other people, starting with trusted others, followed by a difficult person, and finally extending compassion to humanity in general.

Engage in Cooperative Board Games or Cooperative Construction

Research shows that successful experiences with cooperation encourage us to cooperate more in the future. Collaborating with others can encourage children to build positive relationships and to be open to developing more positive relationships in the future.

These experiences also involve discussions and debate, teaching children to consider other perspectives.

 Ideas for cooperative board games or cooperative construction include:

Source: Big Life Journal Website

9-12+ Years - Age-Specific Strategies for Developing Empathy

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Below are some age-specific strategies for developing empathy in children. The age ranges below are a general guide; start with a few activities or ideas that you think will resonate with your child. Some activities introduced to younger children may be carried on into the later years.

9-12 Years

Create Empathy Maps

Empathy maps include four sections: Feel, Think, Say, and Do. Choose an emotion, then brainstorm what you might say, think, and do when you feel that way.

For example: “When I feel worried, I might think I’m making a lot of mistakes or that something bad is going to happen. I say, ‘I’m sorry’ too much or, ‘I can’t do this.’ Sometimes when I’m worried, I do nothing at all. Something helpful that I can do is to take deep breaths and remind myself that everything will be okay.”

If it comes up, you can highlight the fact that what we say or do is sometimes the opposite of what we’re really feeling. You can discuss why that is and how we can relate that to showing empathy and understanding for others.

Ages 12+

Discuss Current Events

Learn about current events and develop empathy by reading newspapers, news magazines, or watching the news together. Alternatively, you can do this activity when your child mentions a current event to you.

Ask questions like:

Encourage Students to Choose Volunteer Tasks (Agency + Action)

Encourage students to choose volunteer tasks that they are passionate about. As children get older, they can take a more direct role in helping the community or society in general. They may even want to start their own projects or charitable organizations to solve a problem they feel strongly about. It’s important for children to explore the world beyond themselves. 

Walk the Line

This activity is perfect for classrooms, summer camps, or other places with a large group of older children/teens. Put a line of tape in the middle of the group, with students facing each side’s line. Read a series of statements. If the statement is true for the student, they go stand on the line. This could include statements like “I’ve lost a family member,” “I’ve been bullied at school,” and so on. Students can also help create the prompts. The activity shows the struggles they have in common and helps them understand what their peers experience and feel. At the end of the activity, students return to their seats to reflect through writing or discussion.

One option is to have students write a letter (that they can deliver or keep to themselves) to a student who walked to the line on one of the same prompts they moved on, sharing more about this experience or offering words of encouragement. Empathy can be taught and developed over time, and it will give your child a foundation on which to build sound judgment, success, and positive and healthy relationships throughout their life. Choose one or two activities from this list and get started!

Source: Big Life Journal Website

Empathy part of the Curriculum in Denmark Schools

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Having empathy is a learned skill that comes with listening and understanding others. That’s why Danish schools decided to introduce mandatory empathy classes in 1993, as a way to teach children aged 6-16 how to be kind.

Teaching Empathy Using Social-Emotional Learning Theory

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Teaching kids about empathy, kindness, and compassion is a must for schools. More than one out of every five students report being bullied...

Empathy in the Classroom: Should I Care?

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The benefits of empathy in education include building positive classroom culture, strengthening community, and preparing students to be leaders in their own communities.

Teaching Empathy Through Design Thinking

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While empathy is the first step in the design thinking process, keep your students focused on this necessary element as they move through definition, ideation, prototyping, and testing.

The Power of Your Words

Run Time: 1:47 - Feb 23, 2010

Kindness Boomerang - "One Day"

Run Time: 5:44 - Aug 29, 2011One of my favourites about paying it forward

Teach Them What Counts

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Source: Thinking Minds Blog

Beyond Empathy is Compassion

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Source: The Road To Compassion At Work - Article

Sesame Street: Empathy

Run Time: 2:28 - Oct 14, 2011

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