Nine Competencies for Teaching Empathy
An educational psychologist and parenting expert offers advice to school leaders.
Empathy is at the core of everything that makes a school caring, a teacher responsive, and a society civilized. When empathy wanes, narcissism, distrust, aggression, bullying, and hate rise—and schools suffer. We are currently in the midst of an educational crisis. American teens are now 40 percent less empathetic than they were three decades ago (Konrath, 2010). While we are producing a smart and self-assured generation, today’s students are also the most self-centered, competitive, individualistic, sad, and stressed on record.
Recognizing that students need more than academic rigor and test preparation to succeed, a growing number of schools are turning their focus to social-emotional qualities like empathy. But which practices enhance empathy and how will principals know if teachers are implementing them effectively? I’ve spent the past decade combing for answers to questions like these and am convinced that we can solve the empathy crisis. But to begin making headway, school leaders must create the right culture, vision, guidance, and professional training so teachers can succeed. The first step is helping teachers understand why empathy must be an integral part of any classroom and school.
The Empathy Advantage
In today’s interconnected world, empathy gives students the edge they need to lead meaningful, productive lives, providing what I call the “empathy advantage.” Once seen as a “soft” skill, empathy helps us understand and feel with others. That’s why Forbes urges companies to adopt empathy and perspective-taking principles, and the Harvard Business Review named empathy as one of the “essential ingredients for leadership success and excellent performance” (Goleman, 2014).
Empathy—or the ability to understand others’ feelings and needs—is also the foundation of a safe, caring, and inclusive learning climate. Students with high levels of empathy display more classroom engagement, higher academic achievement, and better communication skills (Jones et al., 2014). Empathy reduces aggression, boosts prosocial behaviors (Eisenberg, Eggum, & DiGiunta, 2010) and may be our best antidote to bullying and racism (Santos et al., 2011).
Planting Seeds of Empathy
Rather than a one-dimensional trait, empathy comprises nine teachable competencies that I identified while writing UnSelfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World (2016). Each competency is suitable for students from kindergarten through high school (as well as adults) and can be taught. Together, they can serve as a principal’s guide for empathy education.
Educating for empathy is not about using a toolkit or a one-off program; it requires ongoing, embedded work guided by strong school leaders who are empathetic themselves (see “Principles of Effective Empathy Education“). This work must be based on an understanding of the nine competencies, strategies and practices that cultivate them, and students’ needs. Gauging success won’t come from a grade or score, but from a student’s response. Look for smiles, engagement, joy, and even tears: lessons in empathy can be life-altering.
So what are optimum ways to help teachers understand and embed these competencies into their daily practice? Let’s look at how empathetic schools are approaching this work.
1. Emotional Literacy
Before students can empathize, they must be able to read emotions. Students who can recognize feelings are better adjusted emotionally and are more popular, outgoing, and sensitive (Goleman, 1995). They also score higher academically and are more resilient (Gottman & DeClaire, 1997). But researchers warn that today’s digitally focused world is reducing students’ abilities to recognize human emotions and jeopardizing their empathetic capacities (Uhls et al., 2014).
Empathy thrives in environments that prioritize face-to-face connections, so a key step for school leaders is to help teachers create classrooms that nurture meaningful interaction and engagement. Look to see if furniture is arranged to encourage communication, with desks positioned in a semi-circle to allow each student to see every peer, or in small clusters, enabling students to work closely with one another. Notice also if students have opportunities to share ideas and discuss lessons. Watch to see if teachers are withstudents and building caring relationships, or if they’re sitting behind a desk disengaged.
Then note if students are learning to read and identify emotions. First graders in some classrooms I’ve observed have a morning ritual of pointing to how they feel on a chart of facial expressions reflecting various emotions. A music teacher has students identify their feelings before and after each recital. A science teacher regularly assigns students to spend 30 minutes alone in nature without their smartphones, log their feelings, and even reflect on how briefly unplugging increases their emotional awareness.
Also, look for practices that teachers can use to help students identify how others feel. Middle school students can do daily “emotion check-ins” by observing a partner, asking how they are feeling (“Are you frustrated?”), and offering support if needed (“I’m here for you”). Paired sharing, discussions, and class meetings are other ways to increase students’ sensitivity to emotional cues, nurture caring connections, and learn emotional literacy.
2. Moral Identity
A child’s inner value system, or moral identity, can inspire empathy, shape character, and motivate compassion. A key step is helping students define themselves as people who value others. Kids are more likely to learn moral identity when adults model, instruct, and expect them to care about others (Oliner, 1992). That poses a problem in our culture, with its increasing void in moral role models, but educators can play a central role in helping students develop strong ethical compasses.
I’ve seen this being done in countless ways. Teachers have students create class mantras such as “We help each other.” High schools require seniors to write graduation essays on who they are and what they stand for. Third graders memorize weekly kindness quotes, and then choose one for their personal mantra. “Finding your mantra helps you discover what you stand for,” a teen once told me.
For a quick assessment to see how you and your staff are modeling moral identity, ask: “What do we stand for? How are we expected to behave?” It is important to watch your behavior in front of students. As one group of 6th graders reminded me, a teacher’s actions, not a motivational poster on a wall, matter most.
3. Perspective Taking
Perspective taking is the cognitive side of empathy and is crucial for today’s students. Whether it’s connecting students across the globe through technology, debating an issue from various sides, or seeing the American Revolution from the British point of view, perspective taking can stretch students’ horizons and lead them to question assumptions. Research also shows that the most memorable lessons are often based on this third empathy competency (Heath & Heath, 2008).
Stepping into another’s shoes (literally or cognitively) helps kids understand others. I once visited the classroom of an English teacher whose test for Romeo and Juliet uses paper shoe cutouts depicting each character. Students step onto each cutout and explain the plot through the character’s views and feelings.
We tend to empathize with those who are “like us” in social-economic terms. Teens in a North Carolina school told me their science teacher widens their awareness by encouraging them to participate in a 24-hour hunger strike (with parental approval) to understand poverty. Many of these students now volunteer at a food bank because they know what hunger feels like.
Restorative discipline practices help students who’ve hurt or upset their peers develop empathy for their victims. In a Kansas middle school, I observed two boys who’d been suspended from class for a heated debate in which each accused the other of “messing with my stuff.” They were individually required to complete a “think sheet” that had them describe the conflict from the other boy’s view. Asking kids: “How would you feel if that happened to you?” can do wonders to stretch perspectives.
4. Moral Imagination
Educators intuitively know that books can transport students to other worlds, but now science proves it. Reading literary fiction like Wonder or The Grapes of Wrath can enhance empathy and help us to feel withthe characters (Mar, Oatley, & Peterson, 2009). Emotionally charged films and images can also prompt empathetic feelings and even encourage charitable giving (Barraza et al., 2015).
Kindergarteners might watch Dumbo, use puppets to depict the elephants and crows making fun of him, then talk about how they’d feel if they were Dumbo. An art teacher might use riveting paintings to help students grasp different artists’ perspectives.
Books can also help kids explore lives and beliefs different from their own. “A Long Walk to Water moved me,” one middle schooler told me, referring to Linda Sue Park’s novel. “I learned Sudanese kids are like me, but lack opportunities. I talked my class into raising money to get them a well.”
Self-regulation allows kids to keep their emotions in check and recognize others’ feelings, empathize, and then calmly think of how to help. It also boosts academic performance: Managing emotions is a better predictor of academic achievement than IQ (Lehrer, 2009).
If they are too distressed, kids shut down their empathetic instincts because they can’t think clearly enough to help. Regulating feelings starts by teaching children how to recognize their stress triggers and signs before they’re in overload. That’s why calm-down corners, mood rooms, and stress boxes (which contain sensory objects like stress balls or fidget spinners) are popping up in schools from coast to coast.
I’ve watched 1st graders practice belly breathing and high schoolers do yoga to stay cool. Many educators embrace mindfulness meditation because it is proven to reduce stress and nurture empathy. Visitacion Valley School in San Francisco introduced a twice-daily, 15-minute ritual in which students choose to sit quietly or meditate. As a result of this practice, suspensions decreased by 79 percent, while attendance rates and test scores have improved (McFadden, Sandler, & Fieldstadt, 2015). Quiet time has been an effective strategy in this middle school because each student chooses what works for him or her and practices the self-regulation technique until it becomes a habit.
An unprecedented rise in youth depression and anxiety make teaching this fifth competency all the more urgent.
6. Practicing Kindness
Being kind is what helps children tune in to other people’s feelings and needs, trust more, and become more “we” oriented and less “me” oriented. Each kind act nudges kids to notice others (“I see how you feel”), care (“I’m concerned about you”), empathize (“I feel with you”), and help and comfort them (“Let me ease your pain”). Practicing kindness can also change children’s self-image and behavior. If a child sees herself as kind, she is more likely to act kindly.
Kindness is strengthened by seeing, hearing, and practicing kindness. I’ve seen kindergarteners give one another morning greetings with smiles, handshakes, and eye contact. In Bremerton, Washington, “Kindness Ambassadors” meet their peers at the school entrance with friendly greetings. Students at Pleasant Prairie Elementary in Wisconsin give each other high fives during passing periods. Encourage simple kindness routines like these with your students.
Kindness also jump-starts a cascade of beneficial effects not only for the receiver, but for the giver. One Minnesota educator encouraged students to do two kind things each day and discovered the kids actually seemed to become kinder. A psychology teacher had students chart their kind acts for six weeks. The kids realized they were happier, probably because they noticed how much recipients appreciated their caring deeds. Aesop said it best: “No act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted.” A leader’s job is to ensure that students take those words to heart, especially in today’s increasingly uncivil environment.
Empathy is never a solitary act: It’s only when we let go of our self-centeredness and feel with others that our hearts open. Working together on common goals can help students make that crucial shift from “me” to “we.” These cooperative experiences sensitize students to those who may be different or have conflicting interests. This competency also broadens students’ social spheres, preparing them for a diverse world.
Teamwork projects can strengthen students’ abilities to encourage others, resolve conflicts, and disagree respectfully—important aspects of empathy.
Many collaborative practices support empathy education and academic growth. Cooperative learning enhances achievement and boosts empathy skills like listening for feelings and perspective taking (Dean et al., 2012). Conflict resolution helps students work together to solve problems. Jigsaw-type learning activities can reduce racial conflict, help kids learn to care about each other, and improve test performance (Walker & Crogan, 1998).
8. Moral Courage
Moral courage is the inner strength that motivates children to act on their empathetic urges and help others despite the potential consequences. Demonstrating moral courage is not always easy, but children who do so stick their necks out for justice and compassion. They are upstanders—the empathetic elite—who stand up for others because they know deep down it’s the right thing to do. Acting courageously increases students’ resilience, creativity, confidence, willpower, and school engagement—and is teachable.
Mobilizing moral courage may be our best hope to stop cruelty and violence in schools. When kids intervene, it stops bullying more than half the time and within 10 seconds (Hawkins, Pepler, & Craig, 2001). Train your staff to teach upstander strategies so students learn how to safely assist bullied peers or those treated unfairly.1 Then create opportunities for kids to practice those strategies so they become habits. I’ve watched students role-play upstander skills, teach them to younger kids, and present them to peers in assemblies. Strategies like debate, engaging class discussions, Socratic dialogue, and civic discourse also help students find their voice and practice speaking out.
Lessons that help kids recognize that even ordinary people like themselves can do extraordinary things are invaluable. They can be found in history, through the stories of figures like Gandhi or Nelson Mandela; in fiction, through characters like Dorothy Gale or Harry Potter; or in real life, through examples of heroism from veterans, first responders, or whistle blowers. Keep a box of news articles about heroes and encourage students to find more, then lead discussions about how courage helps us do extraordinary things. Kids need heroes to inspire their courage.
9. Growing Changemakers
Encouraging students to help others can activate empathy and help them see themselves as changemakers: individuals who make positive changes and inspire others to follow. Giving—not receiving—is what makes kids happier, healthier, less stressed, and feel better about themselves (Luks & Payne, 2001). Every student, regardless of zip code, has the potential to make the world a better place, if we provide the right experiences.
School service projects, whether bringing toys to a community shelter or delivering books to a senior home, can help children see the world through others’ eyes. And they can be valuable learning experiences. A Seattle 2nd grade teacher’s yearly science, math, and service project is to assign each student one square foot in the school’s garden. They graph their plot, plant their vegetable of choice, and tend it; but the peak moment is when they hand-deliver their harvest to a local soup kitchen. “The look on their faces makes it all worthwhile,” she said. “They realize they can make a difference.”
This ninth competency helps children understand they can improve their world by taking action. And they do so not for trophies or to look good on résumés, but because they are driven by the passion of their hearts. These are the graduates we need, and it starts with empathy.
Educating for Humanity
Above all the benefits described, empathy makes our students better people. It is what will help them live one essential truth: We are all humans who share the same fears and concerns, and we deserve to be treated with dignity. School leaders have important work to do. What will be your next step in making empathy education a reality for your students?
Principles of Effective Empathy Education
Effective empathy education requires seven core principles guided by strong, empathetic school leaders.
1. Ongoing: Educating for empathy is not a one-time lesson, but a continual focus.
2. Woven-In: Empathy competencies are integrated into content and interactions, not tacked on.
3. Meaningful: Instruction is authentic, touches the heart and mind, and stretches “me” to “we.”
4. Internalized: The goal is for students to adopt empathy competencies as lifelong habits.
5. Student-Centered: Students’ needs, not curriculum, drive the lessons and experiences.
6. Respectful Relationships: Empathy breeds in a culture of respect and caring.
7. Empathic Leadership: Empathy is modeled, expected, and core to a principal’s vision, purpose, style, and interactions.