How Teaching Empathy Can Help Make It a Life Skill

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  • Building Character
  • In the Classroom
Daniel Case, 7th Grade Science Faculty

Editor's note: In a time where empathy is greatly needed, we share this blog written in 2019 from a teacher's perspective after incorporating empathy lessons into a curriculum on life skills.

In my experience, young children are often some of the most compassionate people. They are in tune with how others are feeling and offer help to those in need. As children age, I notice that their empathy starts to take a back seat to their own needs and busy lives. Specifically, a child’s middle school years are often chaotic and full of change. This observation was the main reason why during the 2019-20 school year, my goal was to find a way to help students be more empathetic toward their peers.

As defined by Merriam-Webster, empathy is “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another.” In order to teach students about empathy, I enlisted the help of our middle school counselor, Kim Spampinato, who created an activity called Empathy Challenge! Kim and I partnered to bring it to my eighth-grade Real Life classes. What this challenge entailed was to teach students different “levels” of empathetic response to another person. The levels we used are below:

  • Level 1 - Poor response, which is possibly insulting
  • Level 2 - Neutral response, not necessarily good or bad
  • Level 3 - Identified the person's feeling correctly
  • Level 4 - Identified the feeling correctly and added a supportive statement
  • Level 5 - Identified the feeling, added a supportive statement and offered something beneficial to the person

In groups, students reviewed several realistic scenarios that they could experience in their day-to-day lives. Each group took time to develop the best empathetic response possible using their acquired knowledge about the different levels of empathy. At the end of the activity, group members showing the highest level of empathy competed for the title of the “most empathic person in the room.”

One scenario example from the empathy challenge was, “There is a birthday party this weekend, and I didn’t get invited. My friends talk about it at lunch. I don’t want to go to school.” A mediocre, almost inadequate response would be “Hmm, interesting, that’s too bad.” A higher level empathetic response would be, “You must feel left out. I am here for you if you need someone to talk to.” If a group of students came up with a response that lacked empathy, we would tell them what they needed to add to identify a feeling and add supportive language and actions to make it more empathetic. The class quickly grasped the concept of building empathy, and soon most students were forming excellent responses!

It was interesting to see the number of naturally empathetic students versus those who struggle with the concept. Ultimately, students left the class with greater respect and understanding for how to show empathy toward others. It is essential to practice this life skill by both children and adults to stay in tune with and remain sensitive to others’ needs. As an educator, I hope to continue to look for ways to incorporate these lessons to help our students become better friends and colleagues.

 

Detroit Country Day School is a private, independent, co-educational, non-denominational, preschool through grade 12 college preparatory school in Michigan focused on a well-rounded liberal arts education. Emphasis on academics, arts, athletics, and character development is prevalent across the curriculum. The school admits students of any race, color, religion, sexual orientation, national and ethnic origin to all the rights, privileges, programs and activities generally accorded or made available to students in the school. To learn more visit www.dcds.edu.

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