Empathy

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What is empathy?

Empathy is the ability to understand what someone is feeling or experiencing. It is often referred to as the ability to stand in another's shoes or to see things from another's perspective.


Here is a definition of empathy from Start Empathy:

  • "THE WORLD IS CHANGING FASTER THAN EVER BEFORE. TO KEEP UP--AND TO SUCCEED--WE NEED TO CHANGE, TOO. WE NEED TO MASTER EMPATHY.The ability to understand what someone is feeling” – that’s the textbook definition of empathy. But when put into practice, empathy means a whole lot more. It means the ability to grasp the many sides of today’s complex problems and the capacity to collaborate with others to solve them; it means being as good at listening to the ideas of others as articulating your own; it means being able to lead a team one day, and participate as a team member the next. In today’s rapidly changing world, everything that empathy means is critical to our success – at home, at school, and in the workplace." [1]


Another definition comes from Empathy Ed:

  • "Empathy is the ability to look at a situation from another point of view. It is the basis of caring relationships and allows us to connect and understand those who may be different from ourselves. Empathy is an integral part of education, and should be a schooling goal for future students. This site has been created to support educators build classrooms where empathy is the underlying foundation of their students’ interactions, as well as a goal of their education." [2]


Randy Taran, on EduTopia states this about empathy:

  • "According to a study by the Brookings Institution, "Higher curriculum standards don't correlate to higher achievement; empathy does."[3]


Lesa R. Walker, MD, MPH, in her Start Empathy blog post, states this about empathy:

  • "When we have empathy, we minimize our assumptions. We look deeper than face-value. We look for and recognize the “abilities” in people. We respect and honor diversity... A simple action or a choice of words has dramatic impact in helping create, sustain and strengthen an environment of empathy. It also enhances positive collaboration, teamwork, and our ultimate success in working together to solve issues... [It is important to build] multidimensional empathy—empathy for other people, empathy for other living things (animals, plants), empathy for our Earth and deeper empathy for ourselves. Empathy empowers. We learn. We increase our awareness and understanding. We become more positive... Like any language, the language of empathy is best learned at a young age through daily immersion. With practice, children and youth (our future generations) will become fluent in empathy and manifest healthier, greener and more peaceful lives."[4]

Related Articles

Common Core Standards

  • Empathy is the ability to understand the feelings and perspectives of others, and to use that understanding to guide one’s actions. It is critical both to individual human development and to our collective ability to solve problems and build a stronger society.
  • We know that a child who masters empathy at the age of six is less likely to bully ten years later, and that, for students, having one supportive relationship with an adult outside the family can be the difference between success and failure as an adult. And we know that far from being a "nice-to-have," empathy – and the various skills it entails – is increasingly critical to our success at home, in the workplace, and in the world.
  • Cultivating empathy can start with simple actions, like taking the time to stop, breathe, and listen when your child comes to you with a problem. It can start with a bedtime story. It can start by understanding what your strengths are as a school or as a teacher, and in honing in on ways you can embed empathy into your teaching, culture, and behavior. The bottom line: it can start today. [5]
  • Empathy is the critical link to strengthening essential life skills in peace, green-living, and health. [6]

How to teach it?

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| Start Empathy's roadmap for unleashing empathy in schools is a detailed road map for how to build empathy in schools. The road map is based on what people have found to work.
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| Meet Teacher Harriet from Start Empathy, has concrete tips on how teachers can model empathy including getting on the students' level, being present, and celebrating diversity.
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| Equality Human Rights has absolutely everything that you would want to teach a lesson on developing empathy-- and the materials are flexible enough that you could adapt it to work with almost any grade level. There is a video clip, a PowerPoint, teacher notes, and more. Seriously, this is one of the most complete, and best developed, free lessons that I have ever come across! Go check it out!
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| The Olymp-i-a Challenge emphasizes the importance of empathy in strengthening life skills in peace, green-living, and health. The Challenge is a simple, yet powerful activity. The Olymp-i-a Challenge Action Packet is available for free download on the Idea4Idea website,Children and Youth page. The Packet provides orientation and resources for teachers, youth group leaders, and youth mentors. It includes an introduction, instructions, tips, sample recognition/achievement awards, and sample labels for Olymp-i-a Challenge journals. The Action Packet template may be customized for classrooms, youth groups, etc.


Assessments

  • Empathy Ed has posted three assessments has three different assessments of your empathy. The first is a smiles test from the BBC that has you spot the difference between fake and real smiles. Baron Cohen Eyes Test has you guess what the eyes are saying and Glen Rowe Empathy Quotient is a questionnaire. None are appropriate for younger students, but they could be interesting starting points for older ones.

Classroom activities

  • Randy Taran, on EduTopia has these five steps for building empathy in the classroom:
  1. "Watch & Listen: What is the other person saying, and what is his or her body language?
  2. Remember: When did you feel the same way?
  3. Imagine: How does the other person feel? And how would you feel in that situation?
  4. Ask: Ask what the person is feeling.
  5. Show You Care: Let him or her know that you care through your words and actions."[7]


  • Lesa R. Walker, MD, MPH, links empathy to peace, green-living, and health in an Ashoka Start Empathy blog post. The blog post highlights a simple, yet powerful classroom activity called the Olymp-i-a Challenge. The Olymp-i-a Challenge Action Packet and other resources for children and youth (and adults) are available for free download on the Idea4Idea website,Children and Youth page.


  • Building Skills for Caring is a free book from Daniel Kareen with 10 really easy to use lesson plans on teaching empathy. The lessons are pretty versatile but seem ideal for middle school. The lessons include building emotion vocabulary, listening with empathy, having empathy for anger, and imagining the emotions of a historical character. All are easy to use and well scripted.


  • Responsive Classroom has a story of how a fifth grade teacher helped include a student with medical needs in her classroom by helping her students build empathy for him. It's more of a narrative, but some of the strategies that she uses to introduce the topic with her students could work in other rooms as well.


  • Empathy Ed lesson plans has three different lesson ideas-- really general lesson plans on how to turn art or literature activities into lessons on empathy.


  • Oregon Live has an article on how a Randy Webster, a teacher, worked on empathy and perspective taking with his fourth grade students. Activities included writing with their non-dominant hand, wearing glasses made from laminating plastic while trying to color, and walking blindfolded.


  • Empathy Explorerare a variety of short, whimsical videos created for children to understand empathy. They are great to share with a class and then discuss.


  • Roots of Empathy is one of the most innovative techniques for teaching children empathy. Beginning in Toronto, Canada in 1996, the program allows children to interact with an infant during the school year. Results of the program have found decreases in bullying, increases in prosocial behavior and emotional understanding.

Graphic organizers and sentence frames

Handouts and worksheets

  • Lesa R. Walker, MD, MPH, links empathy to peace, green-living, and health in an Ashoka Start Empathy blog post. The blog post highlights a simple, yet powerful classroom activity called the Olymp-i-a Challenge. The Olymp-i-a Challenge Action Packet is available for free download on the Idea4Idea website,Children and Youth page. The Packet provides orientation and training handouts/resources for teachers, youth group leaders, and youth mentors. It includes an introduction, instructions, tips, sample recognition/achievement awards, and sample labels for Olymp-i-a Challenge journals. The Action Packet template may be customized for classrooms, youth groups, etc.

Slideshows, videos and music

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| Ashoka's Empathy 101 videos offer a number of insights about empathy from Ashoka fellows. In "Empathy 101: Feel. Imagine. Do. Share." Kiran Bir Sethi talks about the role of empathy in design and problem-solving.
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| Ashoka Start Empathy has a wide variety of instructional videos on how to teach students empathy-- the videos are short, informative, and aimed at adults or much older students.
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| A Year at Mission Hill is a ten-part documentary series showing how one school in Boston is changing education for the better.
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| Disability related bullying is an 11 minute engaging, intense video about the consequences of disability related bullying in middle school. It is well produced and a good narrative. Their website also has good lesson resources to go along with the video. They also haves videos on racism and gender discrimination with lessons to go along with them. All are well produced and worth looking at!
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| The Power of Outrospection is a video created by author Roman Krznaric to explain how social change is propelled by looking outside ourselves.

Interactive resources

Product reviews

  • Roots of Empathy has an empathy curriculum you can buy, but there isn't a lot of information about it up on their site.

Helpful links

  • Start Empathy is an organization dedicated to building empathy in children. It's website has a ton of resources and information for schools and for families.


  • Project Happiness will send you their curriculum for free-- the program focuses on a variety of socio-emotional areas including empathy.


  • The Idea4Idea website highlights a simple, yet powerful practice technique called the Olymp-i-a Challenge. The Olymp-i-a Challenge Action Packet and other resources for children and youth (and adults) are available for free download on the,Children and Youth page.