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Teaching Strategies: The Importance of Empathy

Jordan Catapano

In the classic novel “To Kill a Mockingbird,” protagonist Atticus Finch teaches his children that, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view … until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”

Empathy—the power to understand perspectives other than your own—is an essential skill for all children to master, and it’s one of an important set of teaching strategies teachers should focus on. Empathy is foundational for building bridges between individuals, understanding each others’ complex emotions, gaining a diverse perspective, and leveraging relationships for collaboration and progress.

Despite its importance, empathy is a still a skill. And like all skills, interpersonal or not, it can be thoroughly developed … or ignored. You could argue that alongside our responsibility to equip our students with the academic skills to ace tests, utilize technology, and comprehend curriculum, we likewise need to consider how we can formulate our teaching strategies to undergird their character to become the most well-rounded and complete individual as they progress through their educational career.

Empathy Equals Intelligence

According to numerous studies, socio-emotional learning contributes to overall cognitive development in children of all ages. The Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley recognizes that understanding and managing emotions is “Key to building healthy relationships and achieving academic, career and life goals.” As children master their own emotions and understand the perspectives of others, they will also be able to control, develop, connect, and motivate themselves more effectively.

The Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence likewise promotes its RULER program—a socio-emotional development curriculum for schools—to enhance the overall well-being of children. This promotes better individual and community health, leading to positive outcomes for academics and beyond. Socio-emotional development reduces a number of negative factors such as hyperactivity, depression, anger, and aggression. In turn, this progress can improve children’s attitudes toward school, improve relationships between students, allow for higher-order instructional strategies, and create a more effective academic experience.

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Howard Gardner, who coined the Multiple Intelligence Theory, also recognized the importance of interpersonal intelligence. It is what allows for our ability to “Understand the intentions, motivations, and desires of other people.” Empathy serves as a centerpiece for socio-emotional development, as it focuses on students understanding themselves and the perspectives of any number of others.

Teaching Strategies that Include Empathy in Your Curriculum

By now, it must seem pretty clear that empathy is an important personality asset, but you may be wondering how to make it fit amongst your current lesson plans. Here are a few ideas to get you started:

  • Be an example. Know that your students watch you. They learn from your character and behaviors as much as they do from your instruction. Be a consistent example of empathy, and exude a caring, compassionate, understanding attitude. They’ll follow your lead.
  • Create the environment. It’s important that your students trust you and one another. If an understanding, trustworthy environment is established, then they’re more likely to open up and display positive characteristics towards one another.
  • Include lots of stories. Stories are perhaps the closest thing we have to “Walking around in someone else’s skin.” They make us more human and develop our ability to understand and sympathize with others’ experiences.
  • Work on communication strategies. Feelings are very different from words. It’s important that attention is given to helping students find the words to explain their feelings, in both their speaking and their writing.
  • Offer collaborative group tasks. As students work together on specific tasks or challenges, they experience a sort of group molding that brings them together. Shared victory or failure gives them a collaborative experience that requires them to exercise those empathy muscles with their peers.
  • Identify shared values and differences. Discussions and activities go a long way towards helping students see how they align or differ from others. Facilitate opportunities for students to be open with one another and safely discover what others’ perspectives may be.
  • Free and structured play. Playing on the playground and in the classroom builds bonds between groups that open up the lanes for mutual understanding. Encourage students to play together, and even coach them on their interactions and consequences.

How do you encourage empathy in your classroom? What works best for you and what results have you seen? Become part of the conversation and share your thoughts in the comments below!

Jordan Catapano is a high school English teacher in a Chicago suburb. In addition to being National Board Certificated, he also has worked with the Illinois Association of Teachers of English and currently serves as a school board member for a private school. You can follow him on Twitter at @BuffEnglish, or visit his website


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