What Is It?

Empathy is the quality of being in tune with the emotions of others. Sometimes the term empathy refers to the ability to imagine and understand how other people might be thinking or feeling (what researchers call cognitive empathy or perspective-taking); other times it indicates the capacity to sense others’ emotions and experience feelings that mirror theirs (referred to as emotional or affective empathy).

Though empathy alone does not guarantee positive behavior—in fact, if other social-emotional skills are lacking, empathy can be overwhelming and counterproductive—it is often considered a vital foundation of morality and prosocial (kind and helpful) action. Empathy is what enables us to extend beyond our own point of view and truly care for each other.

A student invites a new student to play with him at recess because he imagines how difficult it must be for the new student to feel comfortable at his new school.

A preschooler starts to cry when one of her classmates gets hurt because she, too, feels emotional pain at witnessing another’s distress.

Although empathy increases on average as children get older and better able to understand others’ perspectives, even toddlers under two years old can respond empathetically, showing that it is never too early to focus on cultivating empathy. In early adolescence, empathy may decrease, especially for those considered different than the self, but it tends to rebound after that.

Why Is It Important?

Because it helps students understand the perspectives, needs, and intentions of others, empathy is a building block of morality and a key ingredient of successful relationships in school and beyond.

Empathy encourages kind, helpful behavior.

  • More empathetic children are more likely to show prosocial behavior, such as sharing, helping, and comforting others.

 

Empathy creates a safer school culture.

  • Increased empathy can decrease bullying and aggression among kids and make them kinder and more inclusive toward classmates.

 

Empathy fosters positive student relationships.

 

Empathy leads to school success.

Practices

Level
Duration
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Students draw and write about ways they have acted with kindness towards others.
PreK/Lower Elementary
≤ 30 minutes
Students learn to say “thank you” in American Sign Language and brainstorm non-verbal ways to express gratitude.
Upper Elementary
≤ 30 minutes
Students engage in prosocial (kind, helpful) actions for ten days and reflect on the impact of their actions on themselves and others.
Middle School, High School, College
Multiple Sessions
Students reflect on why another person acted kindly towards them, and practice gratitude both verbally & in writing.
Upper Elementary
≤ 30 minutes
Students think about the factors that encourage and discourage people to act when they confront suffering or injustice.
High School, College
≤ 1 hour
Students deepen their understanding of gratitude by “embodying” it.
Upper Elementary
≤ 30 minutes
Acknowledge the faces of everyone in your classroom or meeting to deepen a sense of group connection.
High School, College, Adult
≤ 15 minutes
Students get a secret kindness buddy to do a kind act for during the week.
PreK/Lower Elementary
≤ 30 minutes
Students learn that when someone does something kind, it takes time and effort.
Middle School
≤ 1 hour
Build trust and understanding among students by exploring questions of wonder.
Middle School, High School
Multiple Sessions
Students build trust and inclusion through a quick and fun game that reveals their commonalities.
PreK/Lower Elementary, Upper Elementary, Middle School
≤ 15 minutes
Strategies for parents and caregivers to help their children consider offering reparations as part of their apologies
PreK/Lower Elementary, Upper Elementary, Middle School
≤ 15 minutes
A tool for fostering a supportive and equitable classroom and school environment and for promoting SEL.
PreK/Lower Elementary, Upper Elementary, Middle School, High School, College, Adult
Students learn how kindness and gratitude strengthen friendships through Splat the Cat.
PreK/Lower Elementary
≤ 30 minutes
Students identify what gets in the way of expressing gratitude.
Upper Elementary
≤ 1 hour
Through stories, discussion, and creative presentations about true heroes, students foster their compassion for others and see brave community involvement as an admirable, heroic way of life.
PreK/Lower Elementary, Upper Elementary, Middle School, High School
Multiple Sessions
“Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other’s eye for an instant?”
–Henry David Thoreau