How can we teach students about empathy?

Simi Rai

Wednesday, 29 May 2019

Empathy is the ability to feel and share another person’s emotions. For some, it is the ability to walk in the shoes of another.

As teachers, we are trained to be empathetic within our profession - to build better relationships with our pupils and to show more successful social behaviour within our working environment.

Educators have a great understanding of the bullying and mental illnesses plaguing our pupils in school today and while there is no single solution to these problems, we can begin to engage students in empathy in the classroom.

If we promote understanding, sensitivity, and awareness of those around us, our students will carry these skills into the world around them.

What are the different types of empathy?

There are three key aspects of empathy: cognitive, emotional and empathic concern. Cognitive empathy is the ability to understand someone else’s perspective. Emotional empathy is the ability to create rapport with another person by sharing those emotions, whilst empathic concern compels us to take action.

heads together

What are the benefits of teaching empathy in the classroom?

As educators, embedding empathy in education can be both beneficial in the classroom and within the community. As our classrooms become more diverse, it has never been more necessary to construct a positive and tolerant classroom culture. In our increasingly globalised world, pupils are coming from different socioeconomic backgrounds.

Therefore, they require better empathy skills to communicate cross-culturally with their classmates and within their communities. The benefits of developing these empathic relationships stretch far beyond the four walls of the classroom.

Empathy prepares our pupils to become leaders in their community and within their future professions. Leaders must understand the people that they lead and be able to show them that they care. Studies reveal that “empathy is positively related to job performance and the key to a successful product.” Pupils should be able to empathise with those they lead in order to make them feel valued and trusted.

Studies have shown that when young people have empathy, there is a lower likelihood of bullying, as they show less aggressive behaviours, which can only lead to more positive relationships. If pupils learn to understand life from the perspective of other pupils, they are less likely to target them.

empathy alone

By finding common ground, children are more likely to feel empathetic towards others, if they can relate to how that person might be feeling. Especially, if that person has been a victim of bullying themselves.

According to Bob Sornson, “empathy is the heart of a great classroom culture.” This is to help pupils build positive relationships based on trust and understanding, not only with their friends, but with all of their peers.

How can we teach our pupils about empathy?

1. Model empathy

Always be aware that your pupils watch you. They learn from your actions and behaviours, so consistently demonstrate how to be empathetic. They’ll follow your lead. When facing challenging behaviour, pause and take a deep breath and try to see the situation from the pupils’ perspective before responding.

If a pupil is upset, try to understand their rationale behind their behaviour and really listen. If they appear withdrawn or show signs of anger, avoid reprimanding them. Instead, ask them if they’re okay and how can you help. A little empathy can go a long way.

2. Explicitly teach them what empathy is and why it matters

Clearly explain that empathy means understanding and caring about another person’s feelings. Demonstrate how it can improve the classroom and school community if we showed more empathy not just to our friends, but to those who are different or who are often invisible.

Give examples of how to act on empathy, such as helping a lonely classmate by eating their lunch with them, or by simply asking how they are.

3. Practice

Use your PSHE classes to encourage your pupils to practice empathy. Get them to try the trust fall, which is when a pupil folds their arms and falls backwards (only a foot at most), relying on the support of a pupil to catch them. Ask pupils to sit in a circle and discuss their weekly highs and lows.

Get them to share something new about themselves with a peer they don’t know well. Encourage them to eat lunch with someone different. Ask them to keep a diary of their emotions. Bring back story time! Stories are perhaps the closest thing we have to “walking around in someone else’s shoes” as they make us more human and help us sympathise with others’ experiences.


Use literature

Characters and conflicts in books can expose children to a range of social situations that children may or may not have experienced themselves. By exposing children to these resources, teachers can prompt, and guide discussions related to characters’ emotions, as well as pupils’ personal feelings about characters or conflicts in the story.

These discussions, as well as strategic questioning on the part of the teacher, will allow pupils to engage in empathy practices.

5. What would you do?

Present ethical scenarios and case studies to pupils and asks them to share their thoughts on them. After you’ve built a level of trust and openness in your classroom, pupils should feel comfortable enough sharing their feelings about kindness and compassion.

Ask them to share their views on barriers to empathy and share strategies to overcome them. For example, discuss the benefits of helping a victim of cyber-bullying and the consequences of being a bully.

6. Set clear ethical guidelines

At the start of the academic year, create a clear set of rules establishing unacceptable language and behaviours. Ban offensive or hurtful language like ‘that’s so gay’ and encourage pupils to think about why these words are so hurtful.

These rules and guidelines should hold pupils accountable for their actions not just in the classroom, but also within their communities. A code of conduct or ethical contract is often useful.

7. Get pupil feedback

Create a termly questionnaire based on pupils’ feelings of safety, respect and duty of care within the school. Reassure pupils that their answers will be anonymous and that the purpose of the questionnaire is to understand the classroom culture. Once completed, take the time to examine the data and make a conscious effort to address any target areas you identify in PSHE.

meditation couple

Empathy serves as the centrepiece and foundation for socio-emotional development. It focuses on pupils understanding themselves and the perspectives of their peers. Despite its importance, empathy is a skill that needs to be developed. It is not innate. It is just as important, if not more than their academic skills as it shapes their character.

Strong empathy skills will set them for success in life and as their teacher, you play a pivotal role in ensuring they attain these skills. Feeling other’s emotions can help pupils to remember that they are accountable for their actions – they are a work in progress and it’s never too late for them to learn how to “walk in another pupil’s shoes.”



About our Community Expert


Simi Rai
Community Expert

Over 5 years of experience in educational settings throughout London, Madrid and Barcelona. Whilst studying English Literature and Language at King’s College London and the University of North Carolina, she fell in love with her subject - both the study of literature and craft of writing.

After graduating, she completed the Leadership Development Programme with Teach First, whose mission is to provide equality through education, and attained her PGCE in Secondary English at Canterbury Christ Church University. She was then appointed as Deputy Head of English at one of the highest performing schools in England in a London inner-city academy.

Following this, she completed her Leadership and Management MA at University College London (Institute of Education) and became the director of an English Language company based in Barcelona.

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