Teaching Empathy to Kids

February 12, 2022

A valuable skill we can teach our little ones is to have empathy. Often, teaching this social-emotional skill can be difficult to explain as it’s an abstract concept, and it can be de-prioritized for academics. However, teaching our children to understand and share in the emotions of others is key to their development, self-awareness, and connection to people in their lives.

What does the research say?
Research tells us that while we are born with the ability to be empathetic, it is also a learned behavior. (Poole, 2017). Being empathetic requires children to not only understand what another person is feeling but also determine how he or she would feel in that same situation (Kutner, 2017). This ability develops from self-awareness. A child must first understand his emotions before he can share in the emotions of others (Poole, 2017). Studies have shown that empathy does have an impact in the classroom. When teachers show empathy to their students, the students then act in the same, empathetic way. This was shown to improve both motivation and academic achievement (Wilson, 2016). Additionally, empathy lowers stress. So, by showing empathy in the classroom through both teacher-to-student interactions and student-to-student interactions, academic achievement improves, and stressful situations like bullying decrease (Wilson, 2016).

Benefits of teaching empathy in the classroom?

  • A more caring classroom: Empathy helps create a better, more positive learning environment where students feel valued and safe.
  • Better academic achievement: When students feel that they are in a trusting and caring environment, they perform better academically.
  • Less instances of bullying: When students are able to share in their classmates’ emotions, they are less likely to make fun of and bully others.
  • Teaching empathy helps students respond authentically: If students are told to simply apologize, without a lesson in empathy, then they won’t learn that the feelings of others actually matter. Empathy helps students have authentic apologies and responses to other people.

While teaching empathy may sound like a great idea, it can also be a little intimidating to get started since it seems very different from teaching academic subjects. Read through these strategies to help you begin implementing empathy education in your classroom!

Empathy examples:

  1. Begin, simply, by just teaching your students words to describe feelings and emotions. You can hang pictures showing different emotions in your classroom. You can build on this and add in pictures of students showing empathy. (Poole, 2017).
  2.  Have students come up with ideas on how to show kindness when real-life situations happen in the classroom. Rather than telling students what to do, ask them open-ended questions so they can begin exploring how to respond to others’ feelings. (Poole, 2017)
  3. Be an empathetic role model. Your students should see you showing empathy to them on a daily basis. Kids learn by example!
  4. Incorporate puppets into the classroom. Research has shown that children respond well to puppets and it’s a safe way to help students learn desired behaviors, like empathy. The puppets can “feel” different emotions and model the correct way to respond in those situations (Wilson, 2016)
  5. Help students learn to “read” nonverbal cues through the use of picture books. Sometimes people don’t say how they feel, we just have to figure it out by how they look and act. This is a very important skill for teaching empathy.
  6. Once children are around the age of 5, they can understand and respond to hypothetical situations. This is a great exercise in empathy. How would you feel if no one sat with you at lunch? How would you feel if you got pushed down on the playground? Talking through hypothetical situations helps students determine appropriate, empathetic responses to issues they might see at home or at school.
  7. Read fictional stories in class! Countless studies have shown that those who read and enjoy fiction grow up to be more empathetic adults.

Empathy is such an important skill that we can teach our little ones. Not only does it help to build a caring and nurturing classroom, but it also helps our students understand their peers, respond authentically, and ultimately grow up to be more socially aware and understanding adults.

Kutner, L. (2017). How children develop empathy. Psych central. Retrieved from //psychcentral.com/lib/how-children-develop-empathy/.
Poole, C., Miller, S., & Church, E.B. (2017). Ages & stages: empathy. Scholastic: early childhood today. Retrieved from //www.scholastic.com/teachers/articles/teaching-content/ages-stages-empathy/.
Wilson, R. (2016). Empathy for the A. Teaching tolerance, Spring 2016(52). Retrieved from //www.tolerance.org/magazine/spring-2016/empathy-for-the-a.

Social and Emotional Learning in the classroom

November 27, 2021

When you send your children to school, you feel assured that their academic needs will be met. They will be taught letter recognition to help them read and write, they will be taught numbers so they can do math. But, what about their social and emotional needs?

Social and emotional learning (SEL) is the process of giving children the knowledge they need to understand their emotions, develop empathy, create meaningful relationships, and make responsible decisions. Having the social and emotional needs met in school helps develop the whole child.

Theories behind SEL education
Lev Vygotsky, a 20th-century philosopher, developed a theory of child development that emphasizes the impact of social interaction and community on learning. To put it simply, children learn through social interaction. So by modelling positive social skills, responsible decision making, and empathetic responses, our children will learn how to do those things as well. It would be much more difficult for children to learn these skills without social interaction and without the example of others (Mcleod, 2014).

Maria Montessori also developed a theory of child development that emphasizes social and emotional learning. Her approach to education is built on the idea that the whole child needs to be educated- physical, social, emotional, and cognitive. A core component of her theory is the idea of sensitive periods in early childhood. These are windows of time where learning a particular skill is at the forefront of the child’s development. Montessori education focuses on these sensitive periods and matches their curriculum to the child’s needs. This helps children learn skills when they come most naturally. This includes natural times to teach social and emotional skills. Additionally, Montessori classrooms are multi-age rooms where children interact with their peers and other children both older and younger. This allows them to learn to help those who need it, interact with those who are on the same learning plane, and model behaviors from older, more advanced students (American Montessori Society, 2017).

What does current research say about the impact of social and emotional learning?
An analysis of 30 years’ worth of SEL research showed that students who participated in SEL interventions academically outperformed those who did not have SEL interventions. Research has also found that SEL programs reduce negative behaviors at school, such as aggression, and increase positive behaviors like helping others. Additionally, a 2015 study detailed the economic impact of SEL education. The study discovered that every dollar spent on SEL education produced $11 in benefits. These benefits ranged from better lifetime earnings, reduced crime, and overall improved mental and physical health (Vega, 2017).

Benefits of SEL education
Listed below are just a few of the many benefits of meeting the social and emotional learning needs of children.

  • Increased self-esteem
  • Better attitude toward others
  • Stronger sense of empathy
  • Better commitment to school and education
  •  Better relationships with both peers and adults
  • Less emotional stress
  • Fewer behavior problems
  • Better test scores
  • Better attendance (Weissberg, 2016).

Long Term Outcomes
While the benefits outlined above are good, they are short-term, school-related benefits. Research has also shown that the benefits of SEL education go far beyond your child’s school years. A 2015 study showed a connection between students being taught SEL skills in kindergarten and positive lifetime benefits. Students with SEL education went on to have less criminal activity, less instances of substance abuse, better mental health, more education, and better employment. (Casel, 2017).

As you can see, the benefits of SEL curriculum and education are many. Not only does research show the importance of fostering positive learning environments and modeling social and emotional skills, but both the short and long term outcomes are many. As parents and educators, we want to do everything we can to provide a firm foundation for our little ones. Emphasizing social and emotional learning is a way we can make a big impact in their lives for years to come. We can’t assume that our children will learn these skills on their own without explicit instruction. The benefits and outcomes are far too great to leave this to chance!

An SEL curriculum can be used as part of a homeschool curriculum, preschool curriculum, kindergarten curriculum to support the social and emotional learning framework.

American Montessori Society. (2017). Introduction to Montessori method. Retrieved from //amshq.org/Montessori-Education/Introduction-to-Montessori.
Casel. (2017). SEL impact. Retrieved from //www.casel.org/impact/.
McLeod, S. (2014). Lev Vygotsky. Retrieved from //www.simplypsychology.org/vygotsky.html.
Vega, V. (2017). Social and emotional learning research review. Retrieved from //www.edutopia.org/sel-research-learning-outcomes.
Weissberg, R., Durlak, J., Domitrovich, C. & Gullotta, T. (2016). Why social and emotional learning is essential for students. Retrieved from //www.edutopia.org/blog/why-sel-essential-for-students-weissberg-durlak-domitrovich-gullotta.