Walk In Someone’s Shoes: Can We Teach Empathy, Compassion and Kindness?

May 30, 2018

In recent years, educators have put a great deal of emphasis on the importance of helping children develop a growth mindset rather than have a fixed mindset when it comes to understanding their abilities and potential. Teachers and parents play an important role in this when they learn to give specific, descriptive praise and to label behavior rather than the whole child. For example, saying, “You have been very focused during math class. It seems you love learning about fractions” is much more meaningful than saying, “You are such a good math student!” When it comes to personality traits, though, adults sometimes slip into their old habits, labeling children as being kind, caring and patient or impulsive and self-centered, rather than describing the behavior and seeing the opportunity for growth in these areas as well. While some children understand empathy and develop patience at an earlier age than others, these skills are something that can be taught much like reading and math. It takes practice and explicit teaching, and elementary school classrooms are the ideal environment to help children grow in how they treat others. With a strong home/school connection, parents can support this development at home and in other social settings.

When introducing these skills, classroom teachers can do many things to set the stage and offer opportunities to practice. Children love new vocabulary, and a Community Word Wall that includes words such as kindness, empathy, patience, respect and generosity is a great place to start. Introduce one word at a time and help children understand the meaning by role playing, sharing during meeting, and reading literature that supports that concept. As the classroom community and the list of traits builds, children will begin to identify their own examples of these and can label and describe what they see. Responsive Classroom lays some of the groundwork for this, and when I teacher weaves these concepts into the week with short, frequent lessons and a shared vocabulary, it can go a long way in providing opportunities for children to develop.

Using empathy as an example, a trait that some people see as being difficult to teach and an innate strength that some people have and others lack, we can better understand how even a complex trait can be taught to young children. Sympathy is when we feel sorry for someone else, even have compassion for their situation. Empathy takes this to the next level. To feel empathy for someone, you understand how they are feeling and can put yourself in their shoes. This simple definition and the imagery of putting oneself in another’s shoes makes sense to children. They can understand it, and then when given opportunities, they can practice it, both in real situations and through response to literature.

Simple communication between the school and home can provide parents with the same resources to teach these skills. Parents can mirror classroom practice by seeking books that address the skills their child needs to develop and reading these at bedtime. Casual discussions about the characters often lead to real-life discussions about events that happened at school or at home, and become wonderful teachable moments. Here are some of our favorite books to teach empathy to early elementary school students:

Wilfred Gordon McDonald Partridge by Mem Fox

The Invisible Boy by Trudy Ludwig

Chrysanthemum by Kevin Henkes

Hey, Little Ant by Hannah Hoose and Philip Hoose

A Chair for My Mother by Vera B. Williams

Have You Filled a Bucket Today? by Carol McCloud

Chapter books that make great read-alouds for discussions about empathy include Wonder by R.J. Palacio, The Hundred Dresses by Eleanor Estes, The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane by Kate DiCamillo and Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White.

The interesting thing about literacy links for one positive social-emotional behavior is that they often work for other concepts, as well. Many of the books that are popular for teaching empathy to children can also be used to teach respect, kindness, inclusion and diversity. When we teach children to see the world through the eyes of others, they become increasingly aware of their own behavior and how they impact their community. For more information on teaching complex emotions to children, we recommend this article:

https://www.theguardian.com/teacher-network/2015/may/13/reading-teach-children-empathy

Also, here’s a book list from R.J. Palacio, best-selling author of Wonder:

https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/25/books/review/why-am-i-me-paige-britt-empathy-children.html

At Clarion, we believe we can and should teach empathy along with other social-emotional skills, both in school and at home.

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