Teaching empathy is not merely a passing fad in education. Studies have long shown that empathy education promotes both traditional academic success and cooperative learning skills. Emphasizing empathy in the classroom also leads to safer and more respectful school environments.1
These facts about empathy in teaching may lead educators, especially those in leadership positions, to wonder how to incorporate empathy so that teachers, students and the entire school community reap the positive benefits. Can empathy be taught? Absolutely, and here’s how.
In This Article:
- What Is Empathy and Can Empathy Be Taught?
- Why Do Schools Need to Focus on Empathy in Teaching?
- The Benefits of Empathy in Education
- How To Teach Empathy in the Classroom
- Integrate Empathy in the Classroom
What Is Empathy and Can Empathy Be Taught?
Empathy is widely understood as the ability to understand another person's emotions. It may also include the ability to imagine how someone else is feeling or what they might be thinking. Researchers today differentiate between two types of empathy: 2
- Affective empathy refers to the sensations and feelings a person experiences in response to other people's emotions.
- Cognitive empathy refers to understanding and identifying with other people's emotions or perspectives.
A third type of empathy called compassionate empathy may also exist. Compassionate empathy is the ability to understand and share in someone else’s emotions, but without taking them on as your own emotions.3 Teachers may call this response “helping.”
In the classroom, empathy may manifest in many ways as students navigate academic and social situations. Some examples of student actions that demonstrate empathy in the classroom might include the following:
- Letting a friend know they understand how disappointed the friend might be with a poor grade, especially after studying so hard.
- Helping another student recover after they have been bullied and reporting the incident to an adult.
- Mirroring the emotions of a character in a story by laughing when that character thinks something is funny or feeling sad when something bad happens to the character.
- Offering to share a lunch with a classmate who forgot their own.
Why Do Schools Need to Focus on Empathy in Teaching?
Empathy may come naturally to some students, but it may be a real struggle for others. Teachers are more likely to think about how to teach empathy when they encounter students who struggle to make meaningful connections with their classmates. Students in need of empathy education may demonstrate various behaviors, such as the following:
- Being quick to criticize
- Judging others who do not share their beliefs
- Not celebrating others' accomplishments
- Struggling to make friends
- Feeling entitled
- Talking only about themselves and not caring about others’ experiences
- Blaming others for conflicts
The Benefits of Empathy in Education
Teachers and school administrators who focus on educating the whole student know that teaching empathy is just as important as teaching academics. The benefits of teaching empathy extend to the individual, the classroom, the school community and the world at large. The skills that students learn during empathy education can change how they interact with others for the rest of their lives.
1. Positive Classroom Culture
Teachers are charged with creating a place where students feel comfortable, confident and supported in their learning. Empathy is an important component of a positive classroom culture. With the help of empathy education, students can understand their classmates and others in the world around them.
In the classroom, children build friendships and engage in teamwork situations that expose them to other people's point of views. These positive relationships can build trust.
In addition, a teacher who shows empathy to students is integral in building a positive classroom community. The student–teacher relationship that is formed in a positive classroom environment can make a student feel supported in their educational journey.
2. Stronger Community
Empathy in education education gives students the opportunity to be successful in a globalized world. Empathetic individuals can come together with people from different cultures and different backgrounds, and understand new perspectives. Teaching empathy allows children to develop skills to communicate with people who do not necessarily share their experiences. This ability to empathize and communicate can strengthen the global community.
A leader must be able to understand people. They must lead and show care for those who follow them. Empathy is an essential leadership quality. The more students can learn to empathize, the more they are able to make others feel valued. This type of validation helps to build the trust that enables students to become strong leaders.
How To Teach Empathy in the Classroom
1. Model Empathy
Students look to their teachers for social and emotional clues. Teachers are role models of empathy. A teacher who leads by demonstrating that they understand their students’ perspectives models empathetic behavior.
2. Teach Perspective
Literature is an excellent way for teachers to help students see situations from different points of view. Many examples of “fractured fairy tales” share well-known stories from alternative perspectives. Using texts such as these can help children understand how different characters may view different events depending on their role or the impact they experienced from the events of the story. Students can, in turn, extrapolate this encounter with empathy to real life when their teachers ask them to consider what a classmate or friend might be thinking during a conflict.
Older students may be able to infer perspective without having to read a story written from a different point of view. To encourage them to think deeply about perspective, English teachers can ask students to rewrite sections of texts from a different character’s point of view.
3. Promote Active Listening
Active listening is an important component of empathy. Active listening occurs when the listener truly hears what the speaker has to say, what they believe in, what they are experiencing, and what their background is.
Teaching students active listening skills can help them to develop empathy. Some examples of active listening skills include making eye contact when appropriate, focusing one’s attention and acknowledging the speaker. When students really listen to each other, they can better understand or imagine other people’s perspectives.
4. Defer Judgement
It can be difficult for students to refrain from immediately sharing their opinions about something. However, deferring judgment can be an important step in learning and practicing empathy. When someone immediately offers an opinion about a situation, that person is losing the opportunity to gather additional details to inform their reaction. It’s important, therefore, for teachers to encourage children to ask themselves, What more do I need to learn? or What information am I missing? before jumping to conclusions.
5. Demonstrate Empathetic Communication
When you empathize with someone, you do not tell them how they are or should be feeling or what they should do. Instead, you acknowledge that you think you understand what they might be going through and how they might be feeling.
Giving students sentence starters such as “It sounds like…” or “I hear that you…” can help them react and respond with empathy. Students can also learn to respond to situations by reflecting the feelings the person is sharing and the reasons the person is giving.
6. Develop Community Projects
Compassionate empathy is a form of empathy that emphasizes action. When students see or understand a difficult situation and feel compelled to help, they are showing compassion and empathy.
Service learning projects are excellent ways to build compassionate empathy and teach students to work together toward a common goal. These service projects can help students think about people who are living lives different from their own and show them ways that taking action can help others. Some examples of service projects that teach empathy include collecting food for a local food bank, visiting a local nursing home, fundraising for victims of a natural disaster or organizing a school clean-up event.
Integrate Empathy in the Classroom
Teachers need to remember to take a moment before they react to a student's behavior. Students may be dealing with many troubling situations, such as trauma, hunger and bullying. A student's negative behavior likely occurs because they do not know how to deal with their emotions. Empathetic teachers acknowledge what their students may be experiencing and thus react to negative behaviors in a way that respects the students, their experiences and their perspectives.
2. Avoid Sympathy
Sympathy may seem to show that a teacher cares deeply for their students; however, sympathy may cause teachers to lower their expectations for students because they feel bad for them. Offering an empathetic response requires teachers to remember not to lower their expectations. When they maintain high expectations, teachers show that they believe their students can do difficult things even during difficult times. By holding students accountable and challenging them, teachers show empathy and demonstrate their support.
3. Refrain from Making Assumptions
Even teachers who expect their students to defer judgment and show empathy sometimes need to be reminded to expect the same of themselves. When students are exhibiting negative behaviors, teachers must ask if there is anything else they need to understand about the situation. This may give students time to explain what other things are happening in their lives or to admit that they made a mistake.
As a teacher, it is best not to assume that you have all the facts about a situation before speaking and responding to students. When teachers ask students to truly explain a situation, they are modeling empathy and respect
If you believe in the power of empathy in education and want to learn more about how to teach empathy, consider earning a degree with a focus in teaching from Grand Canyon University. A degree such as the Bachelor of Science in Elementary Education degree can prepare you to bring deep levels of understanding and connection to the students in your classroom. Complete the form on this page to learn more about joining our learning community.
1 Owen, L. (2015, November 11). Empathy in the Classroom: Why Should I Care? Edutopia. Retrieved April 12, 2023.
2 Greater Good Magazine. (n.d.). What Is Empathy? Greater Good Magazine. Retrieved April 12, 2023.
3 Borg, M., Brenner, G., Berry, D. (2014, August 29). A New Understanding of Compassionate Empathy. Psychology Today. Retrieved on May 15, 2023.
Approved by the dean of the College of Education on May 22, 2023.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.