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Empathy is described as the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. The Greater Good Science Center at the University of California-Berkeley tells us empathy is the building block of morality and that it is a key ingredient to successful relationships. Yet we continue to hear about the decline of empathy among students. In fact, one University of Michigan study found that today’s college students are an astounding 40 percent less empathetic than they were 10 years ago. And a recent study from Harvard University found that 80 percent of surveyed youth agreed with the statement “My parents are prouder if I get good grades in my class than if I’m a caring community member in class and school.”

All is certainly not lost—it just may be an opportunity to shift priorities so that empathy is valued similarly to achievement. This e-newsletter discusses the importance of teaching empathy in the classroom and offers tips educators can use to teach this essential skill.

Empathy in the classroom

Having empathy isn’t just about being “warm and fuzzy.” The science behind it deems it an essential skill. It decreases bullying and aggression among young kids, reduces prejudice and racism, fights inequality, enhances effective communication and promotes helping others in need. Here are some simple ways you can help students of all ages build on their empathy.

  • Elementary school: Encourage young students to develop empathy by identifying ways they can be more understanding toward others. Simple activities, such as linking facial expressions with feelings or asking students how they would feel if a story happened to them, are good exercises in empathy. Show students a variety of facial expressions and ask them to identify the emotions associated with each expression. You can even develop an interactive Q&A. For instance, ask “How would you feel if a bully purposely tripped you in the hall?” Allow students to answer by picking the face that corresponds with their emotion. Use Mood Pencils as prizes for students who answer correctly. Take it a step further by rewarding empathy in daily interactions. If you see students being empathetic toward classmates or staff, give them a sticker or Mood Dude Sticky Book.
  • Middle school: Middle school is an important time to remind students that, although we may be different, we all share some commonalities. Help students identify shared traits by playing “10 things we have in common.” Divide students into groups and challenge them to name a minimum of 10 unexpected things they have in common. Reward teams that discover the most common traits with a Kind® Bar or Smiles Pencil.
  • High school, college and beyond: Older students may benefit from focusing their attention outward—in other words, by practicing mindfulness. Mindfulness can promote empathy, especially when it comes to being mindful of the behaviors and expressions of others. Challenge students to a “Game of Fives” where they are tasked with noticing five people and/or situations they encounter in their day that usually go unnoticed or unappreciated. Ask them to do some reflective journaling to analyze their findings, including what they saw, how they felt and how they saw the world through the eyes of someone else. Provide a care journal to memorialize their thoughts and to promote continued reflection and compassion.

Remember, empathy is an essential skill that can be taught and enriched in all students. Teaching compassion for others helps build a caring community and thoughtful future leaders.

“Empathy.” Google. N.p., n.d. Web. Retrieved 12 Feb. 2015.

“What Is Empathy?” University of California – Berkeley Greater Good. N.p., n.d. Web. Retrieved 11 Feb. 2015.

Elmore, Tim. “Why Empathy is Declining Among Students and What We Can Do.” Psychology Today. N.p., 20 Mar. 2014. Web. Retrieved 12 Feb. 2015.

Lahey, Jessica. “Why Kids Care More About Achievement Than Helping Others.” The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, 25 June 2014. Web. Retrieved 12 Feb. 2015.

Tavangar, Homa. “Empathy: The Most Important Back-to-School Supply.” Edutopia. N.p., 07 Aug. 2014. Web. Retrieved 12 Feb. 2015.

“Developing Empathy: Early Grades.” Teaching Tolerance. N.p., n.d. Web. Retrieved 12 Feb. 2015.

“Teaching Empathy.” the empathy symbol:. N.p., n.d. Web. Retrieved 12 Feb. 2015.

James, Alfred. “6 Mindfulness Exercises You Can Try Today.” Pocket Mindfulness. N.p., N.d. Web. Retrieved 12 Feb. 2015.

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