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4 Ways to Teach Empathy to Kids

A teacher guides a group of students as they work together on a school project.The ability to empathize is part of what distinguishes us as human. Putting yourself in another person’s shoes and seeing things from their perspective provides the foundation for positive relationships and collaborative efforts. It can help prevent bullying, foster better interaction with peers and pave the way to professional and personal success.

Studies show that many activities can lead to building stronger empathy. They include reading fiction, practicing listening skills, learning to recognize body language cues and offering help to others in need.

Young minds can build empathy through these methods but often need guidance. Toward that end, Fresno Pacific University offers teachers a professional development course called Teaching Empathy: The Human Experience and Process Drama.

Educators can take Teaching Empathy as a standalone course or as a part of earning a Social Emotional Learning certificate.

What Is Process Drama?

Process drama is a powerful tool educators can use to help kids develop empathy. The goal is to give students an effective way to understand another person’s perspective.

Teachers assign students roles in process drama, which the students then act out without a script. Students receive a loose framework for where the conversation is supposed to go and a topic to discuss or a problem to solve. Each student's roles are often quite different from themselves, giving them a chance to view life from another perspective.

“Process drama allows students to exercise empathy by becoming real or fictional characters and providing a safe environment for students to represent others in an honest and real way,” said Emily Howard, the instructor in Fresno Pacific’s process drama course. “By creating these environments, educators learn to guide their students in authentic exercises in empathy for others and making social-emotional connections. It is a thrill to see how drama is transformative!”

Teachers don’t need theater experience to use process drama. Howard said, “I love walking alongside educators—especially those with no theater background—as they experience an unknown form of arts integration that can be so easily applied to curricula they are already teaching.”

Developing True Empathy

Empathy involves more than simply understanding the perspective of others. People may understand how another person feels but not genuinely care. In some cases, unscrupulous people may use their understanding of how another person feels to manipulate them.

Empathy involves sharing another perspective and feeling compassion for their situation. In a classroom, activities that help students foster empathy can lead to better student interactions. It also can create a more respectful learning environment that allows students to thrive.

Learning to practice empathy is also a skill that serves students throughout their lives, helping them build more genuine relationships personally and professionally.

Approaches to Teaching Empathy

Over the years, successful approaches have emerged to teach students empathy. Educators around the world use the following four methods:

Literature Approach

Reading increases empathy, especially long periods of “deep reading” that require higher-order cognitive skills. A first-person narrative places the reader in the mind of a protagonist created by an author, including their reactions to the world around them and decision-making thought process. Students can widen their perspectives without ever having to leave a comfortable reading chair. Teachers can use novels to walk students through a character’s decisions and emotional reactions, discussing the reasons behind both.

Conflict Resolution Approach

Listening skills are important to achieving empathy. For many, emotions get in the way during a conversation, forcing them only to comprehend what is happening from their point of view. They may spend the conversation simply waiting for a chance to voice their feelings.

A conflict resolution strategy called HEAR provides a framework to help people get past their emotions, hear what the other person is saying and see things from the other’s perspective.

HEAR works like this:

  • Halt: Ask the student(s) to stop what they are doing, clear their mind and pay attention to the person speaking
  • Engage: Focus on the speaker. A physical component can help maintain this focus, such as turning their head toward the speaker.
  • Anticipate: Anticipate and look forward to what the speaker has to say, allowing themselves to learn something new and interesting
  • Replay: Think about and replay the speaker’s words, allowing for a better understanding of what was just said. Students can do this in their minds or in a class discussion with the speaker and classmates.

Personal Approach

This approach requires students to share their personal stories, including how certain situations affected their feelings and for others to practice good listening. This is especially effective at the beginning of the school year. The more students know about each other early in the year, the better they can understand their perspectives, emotions and actions as the year progresses.

Role Model Approach

It’s critical to the process that teachers model empathetic behavior for their students to emulate. Students will mirror the positive behavior, making it easier for them to develop empathy for other students.

Fresno Pacific University’s Teaching Empathy Course

Fresno Pacific’s Teaching Empathy course gives teachers the knowledge they need to connect with students who have not been taught how to empathize at home. It also helps educators understand how to create an awareness among students of their biases and how they can overcome them.

Teachers will earn professional development credits as they develop proficiency in critical thinking and problem solving, communication, collaboration, creativity and innovation related to process drama and teaching empathy.

The students will reap the most rewards. Teachers who complete the Teaching Empathy course will have another tool to help students develop authentic empathy. It’s a skill that will serve students well throughout their lives.