We often think of empathy as something one does or does not innately have. But did you know that empathy can be taught and cultivated from a young age?
Empathy, at its roots, is the ability to understand how another person might be feeling. This skill is at the foundation of making strong friendships and building a sense of community and connection in students.
Fortunately, teaching empathy doesn’t have to be overly complicated or serious. You can help your students by teaching empathy activities and games. Keep reading, and we’ll share a few ideas that might work in your classroom.
1. Character Role-Playing
Getting into character is one of the most fun and educational types of empathy games. It allows students to apply their understanding of the content in the real world. Whether it’s a character from a book or a historical figure, asking your students to step into another person’s shoes will help them develop a strong sense of empathy.
Have the students write a short story from the perspective of a character.
Ask a group of students to work together to act out a scene from a novel or play.
Establish a “dress up as your favorite character” day, and have students share why they chose the person/character they did.
The point of role-playing is to imagine life from another person’s perspective. Make sure to ask thought-provoking questions like, “What makes this person happy?” or “What are their challenges?” Getting students to think more critically about the character can help them shift perspectives.
2. Empathy Scavenger Hunts
A classroom, grade level or school-wide scavenger hunt might be the perfect solution to empathy games for students. Working together with teammates will help them foster relationships. Additionally, you can create clues and activities that help them get to know their fellow students and school faculty on a more personal level.
To foster empathy, you might task the students with creating some of the clues and activities themselves. As an example, you might create clues that point to an individual within the school. Once they arrive at that person’s desk, locker, office, etc., they can ask questions to get to know the individual better. This is an especially great activity for the start of the school year.
3. Identifying Emotions
If your students are in elementary or middle school, it might help to start with something simple. Identifying and modeling different emotions can be a basic but fun introduction to empathy. Here are a few ideas for teaching young students about different emotions:
Write out a list of emotions on the chalkboard, and ask students to model that emotion on their faces.
Play a game of charades, wherein one person acts out emotion, and the others have to guess.
Present students with a scene or scenario, and ask them to act out how they would feel in that situation.
Asking your students, “How would you feel if…,” can be a great introduction to emotions and empathy.
4. Student Check-Ins
Putting yourself in another person’s shoes is a great way to learn empathy. You can learn to appreciate another person’s feelings if you don’t yet understand your own. That’s why it’s a good idea to perform regular check-ins with your students. Be prepared to ask questions relevant to the student’s age and circumstances. We’ve listed some examples below:
Empathy questions for elementary students:
What makes you feel happy, upset, angry, or sad?
How do you know when someone is listening to you?
What would you say to a classmate who was feeling sad?
How does it feel when someone interrupts you or doesn’t listen to what you say?
Those questions might be a little too easy if you teach older kids. Consider these empathy questions for middle school students:
What does it mean to put yourself in someone else’s shoes?
Can you think of an experience where you wished someone understood how you felt?
How can you show better empathy to other people?
By the time students move up from middle school, they might be ready for empathy questions for high school students:
How is empathy different from sympathy?
Why do you think some people have an easier time empathizing with others?
How do you think social media affects our ability to feel empathy?
Who is someone who shows empathy well? What makes you feel that way?
These are examples of questions that will help your students think more critically about empathy and how it can be developed naturally into as a skill.
Another outstanding example of a ready-made daily check-in is 180 Connections, created by Rachel’s Challenge. This interactive resource provides daily prompts for students in elementary through high school. It not only provides thought-provoking questions, but also allows students to connect more deeply with their teacher as well as other students. It’s a win-win!
5. Interview and Art Projects
If your students like to work with their hands, an interview/art project might be a great method of teaching empathy. Task the students with selecting a person in the classroom or school to get to know better.
Once they’ve performed a series of interviews, allow them to create a visual representation of the person they’ve gotten to know. It could be a sculpture, a portrait, a collage, or any other art medium. Thinking about that person’s life experience and transforming what they know into a work of art will help cultivate empathy.
6. Emotions Collage
If you are looking for teaching empathy activities that include artwork, here’s another idea: allow your students to create a “feelings collage” that represents the different emotions they feel from time to time.
Bring a stack of magazines and newspapers, along with other craft supplies, to the classroom. Let your students use their imaginations to choose images and text to include. Don’t forget to have each student explain to the class their choices for their “feelings collage” and method of thinking at the end of the activity.
Why Empathy Matters
Remember, empathy games are more than a teambuilding exercise or a way to kill time. When you build empathy within the classroom, you foster an environment of safety, community, and understanding. Ultimately, this will help every student and faculty member create more profound and meaningful relationships.
If you would like some help fostering empathy and connection at your school, feel free to get in touch. At Rachel’s Challenge, we have several helpful resources and programs designed with this purpose in mind.
Mental Health and Wellness
May is Mental Health Awareness month, and providing for our own mental health and wellness is one of the most important things we can do. Teaching is one of the most stressful occupations in the United States. The constant outpouring of energy that educators exert everyday can lead to burnout. The additional toll on mental health brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic over the last two years has exacerbated the issue. That is why we at Rachel’s Challenge have put together this resource list to help you take better care of yourself so you can best support your students when they need it.
We can all be overwhelmed by our emotions at times. Often what seems like the easy thing to do is to try to avoid those feelings in whatever way possible, hoping they’ll just go away. However, when we are unable to process our emotions we can act out or react in a negative way, or the feelings can overwhelm us. That can lead to reacting with an “acute stress response,” which is the way the body rapidly responds when one feels threatened in order to decrease, end, or evade the immediate danger to return to a state of calm and control.
These acute stress responses are more commonly known as fight, flight, freeze, or fawn. Most of us are familiar with the “fight,” “flight,” and “freeze” responses, but “fawn” may be a new one you haven’t heard before. To “fawn” means to immediately act to try to please to avoid any conflict in a situation. People may often use this response after unsuccessfully trying fight, flight, or freeze. If you find yourself more concerned with making someone happy who has treated you poorly than you are concerned with taking care of yourself, you may be one who utilizes this response.
Below are some strategies and tools to help you deal with negative emotions so you can better understand yourself on a deeper level, as well as make it easier to connect and support others, especially your students, when they need it. Please note that Rachel’s Challenge has no direct affiliation with any of the recommendations listed below, but we hope to provide a wide range of options for everyone to find something that they can relate and connect with the most.
Strategies to Support Mental Health and Wellness
Mindfulness is a powerful tool to help bring us into the present moment. It involves quieting our minds to bring attention and awareness to present thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations in order to help us accept those same thoughts and feelings without being overwhelmed by them or what’s going on around us. By tuning into what we are sensing in the present moment, we get ourselves out of the rut of worrying or ruminating about the past or having anxiety about the future. It can also increase empathy and compassion for others around us, improving our relationships and developing a sense of connectedness. So, when you practice being kind to your mind in the present moment, you’re not only connecting with yourself more, you’re connecting with others more which leads to a more fulfilling life.
Here are some apps that can assist you in your mindfulness practice:
2. Breathing Exercises
Have you ever noticed how you breathe when you feel relaxed? The next time you are relaxed, take a moment to notice how your body feels. Or think about how you breathe when you first wake up in the morning or just before you fall asleep. Deep breathing is one of the best ways to lower stress and anxiety in the body. When you breathe deeply a message is sent to your brain to calm down and relax. The brain then sends this message to your body. Certain bodily responses that happen when you are stressed, such as increased heart rate and fast breathing, decrease as you breathe deeply to relax. The way you breathe affects your whole body. Breathing exercises are a good way to relax, reduce tension, and relieve stress and anxiety – and they’re easy to learn. You can do them whenever you want, and you don’t need any special tools or equipment to do them. You can try different exercises to see which work best for you.
Here are a few exercises you can try right away:
Belly Breathing(also known as Abdominal or Diaphragmatic Breathing)
Find a comfortable place to sit or lie down.
Place one hand on your upper chest and the other on your belly, below the ribcage, allowing you to feel the rise and fall of your diaphragm.
Breathe in slowly through your nose, feeling your stomach press into your hand, while keeping the hand on your chest as still as possible.
Exhale slowly through slightly pursed lips.
Repeat for 3-5 minutes, or as long as you’d like.
Find a comfortable place to sit or lie down.
Inhale for four counts.
Hold the air in your lungs for four counts
Exhale for four counts.
Hold at the end of the exhale for four counts.
Repeat for as long as you’d like.
Sit in a comfortable position with your neck and shoulders relaxed.
With your mouth closed, inhale through your nose for two seconds.
Exhale through your mouth for four seconds, pursing or puckering your lips as if you were giving a kiss.
Repeat as many times as you’d like, keeping your breath slow and steady throughout.
Have you ever experienced a situation where your emotions go from 0 – 100 in what seems like the blink of an eye? Probably so. Sometimes when this happens our emotional reactions can make the situation worse. STOPP, TIPP, and the 54321 Grounding Method are all quick and easy tools you can use in the moment to help calm your emotions.
STOPP is a powerful technique that helps you take a moment to notice the feelings going on inside you before reacting to them. It can help you reframe your thoughts and perspective in a situation and not allow your emotions to get the best of you. Watch this short video to see how it works.
TIPP is another technique to help you stop emotional distress in its tracks by taking control of your body’s physiological response and using your body’s chemistry to help change your thoughts. TIPP stands for Temperature, Intense Exercise, Paced-Breathing, and Paired-Muscle Relaxation. Learn the technique below.
The 54321 Grounding Method uses your five senses to help ground you in the present moment.
Look for 5 things you can see.
Become aware of 4 things you can touch.
Acknowledge 3 things you can hear.
Notice 2 things you can smell.
Recognize 1 thing you can taste.
Journaling is a great way to help you unload and untangle thoughts and feelings. By writing down your thoughts and feelings you can become more aware of your interior world, helping you solve problems and process traumatic events. Journaling helps reduce stress and anxiety, improves immune function, keeps your memory sharp, boosts your mood, and strengthens your emotional functions by presenting an opportunity for emotional catharsis and providing a greater sense of confidence and self-identity. Writing by hand also has benefits: it’s scientifically shown to be good for your brain and your mental health – it reduces stress and anxiety, boosts creativity, improves your memory, enhances your focus, and more! So much of the writing we do in life is for an outside audience, such as work or school assignments and social media posts. So remember, when it comes to a journal, you’re writing for YOU!
Gratitude is an excellent way to boost your mood and increase your feelings of happiness. It can also improve your physical health, self-esteem, reduce stress and anxiety, and open doors to help deepen connections with other people. Keeping a gratitude journal, sending a thank you note to someone, or acknowledging someone with a verbal thank you can improve your well-being – so don’t forget to say thank you!
7.Move Your Body
When stress affects the brain, the rest of the body feels the impact as well. So, it makes sense that if your body feels better, your mind will too. Physical activity produces endorphins – those chemicals in the brain that act as natural painkillers – and help improve your mood and concentration, relieve stress, alleviate anxiety and depression, improve sleep, and boost your confidence and self-esteem. Almost any form of exercise or movement works – walking, running, dancing, cycling, yoga, weightlifting, swimming, going for a hike in nature, and playing sports. Find what you love to do that gets your body moving!
Apps to Support Mental Health and Wellness
Developed by clinical psychologists in close collaboration with leading researchers for those who want to learn about emotional well-being or who suffer from mild-to-moderate mental illness including depression, anxiety, insomnia, and eating disorders.
Developed by leading scientists and experts who’ve been studying evidence-based interventions in the fields of positive psychology, mindfulness, and cognitive behavioral therapy, Happify brings you effective tools and programs to help you take control of your feelings and thoughts.
Moodfit provides a comprehensive set of customizable tools to help you learn and focus on what most affects your mood, including daily goals and self care, mood and gratitude journals, mindfulness and breathing exercises, and more!
Started by a black woman and half-Japanese woman who didn’t see themselves and their experiences reflected in mainstream wellness. Their bodies, skin color, financial access, and past traumas often felt otherized. This inclusive self-care kit includes daily meditations, a mood tracker, gratitude log, and self-care courses.
The purpose of the “Safe Place” is to bring more awareness, education, and hope to minority mental health. Not only can the black community benefit from this app, but also mental health professionals, friends, and family, of ALL colors can be better educated on this issue. All races go through mental illness, but we also can experience it differently because of our race and social backgrounds.
Podcasts to Support Mental Health and Wellness
Host Kristen Trumpey, who has a Masters in Applied Positive Psychology, wanted to create an accessible podcast that took the high-level scientific journals on the subject and put them in a context that makes sense, allowing listeners to explore a variety of positive solutions and pick something that works for them. It’s about understanding the science behind gratitude journals, dancing in your kitchen, and all the small things that make the good life, well, good.
Based on years of scientific research, The Happiness Lab is about what makes us happy. Yale professor Dr. Laurie Santos takes on the misconceptions about what happiness is and shares inspiring stories that make you reflect on what happiness means to you.
From the creators of the Shine App, a podcast about how to take care of your mental health while at work.
Best selling author and wellness blogger Ty Alexander explores ways to take care of yourself and help you become the best you.
With over 20 years studying what brings meaning and purpose to our lives, Brene Brown has learned this, “We are hardwired for connection, and connection requires courage, vulnerability, and conversation.” Listen to conversations that explore how we can connect on a deeper level.
Licensed psychologist Joy Harden Bradford chats about mental health and personal development to help you become the best version of yourself.
Teaching kindness, empathy, inclusion, and acceptance combine important components of developing students’ abilities to build healthy and positive relationships with others. In addition, building authentic connections between school staff members and students is critical. These connections build the trust needed to foster kindness, compassion, safety, empathy, acceptance, hope and a sense of belonging in the classroom.
To foster kindness in schools and instill empathy:
Model kindness yourself
Encourage kindness with rewards
Teach empathy and perspective-taking
Help children deal with strong emotions
Promote kindness and acceptance
When children feel connected, they are less likely to hurt others or themselves. They’re also more likely to succeed academically, socially, and personally. Let’s look at five ways to foster kindness and instill empathy and acceptance in the classroom.
1. Model Kindness Yourself
One way to cultivate kindness is by modeling it yourself. Emphasizing friendship, reaching out to others in need, encouraging good manners, and showing respect to others will provide students with someone to model their behavior off.
Numerous activities demonstrate kindness in the classroom, including celebrating Kindness Week, holding assemblies that inspire acts of kindness and goal setting, creating a friendship center, and engaging in kindness challenges.
Consistently modeling the behavior you want students to exhibit will provide them with a positive example that will remain with them and encourage them to mimic those actions after seeing the positive results and reactions.
Ways to show kindness at school include introducing custodians to the class, acknowledging the importance of their role, and thanking them for the work they do. Another example is being openly kind and appreciative to cafeteria staff in front of the children. Showing respect to other faculty members by greeting them in a friendly way in hallways and common areas is another way to model respect and kindness. Teaching kindness through modeling is a natural and effective way for students to learn how to treat others by observing them in real-time.
“Kindness is a silent smile, a friendly word, a nod of encouragement. Kindness is the single most powerful thing we can teach children.” — RAKtivist
2. Encourage Kindness with Rewards
Promoting acts of kindness in schools with positive reinforcement can be effective and powerful. PBIS, or “positive behavioral interventions and supports,” is a proactive approach that focuses on prevention as opposed to punishment. PBIS focuses on rewarding students with model behaviors instead of negative reinforcement of inappropriate behaviors. This approach is designed to encourage students to seek positive reinforcement instead of negative redirection.
Advocates for PBIS believe that PBIS changes school disciplinary protocols for the better. Others worry about the use of rewards and fear that problem behaviors can too easily be ignored. It’s important that educators plan consistent reward systems focusing on positive behaviors without excluding students with behavior challenges.
When carefully monitored and administered authentically, reward systems can work to encourage kindness, provided that children are rewarded according to their own actions and not based on a standard, inflexible reward system.
“No act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted.” — Aesop
3. Teach Empathy and Perspective-Taking
Being able to understand the feelings of another can transform the lives of students. Although it is impossible to understand someone else’s feelings or emotions truly, it is important to at the very least try to see situations from another’s point of view, i.e., walk in someone else’s shoes. This action encourages positive social change and cultivates a safer environment. When children feel understood, they feel happier, trusted, and compelled to treat others with kindness.
Educators can teach empathy and perspective-taking by stressing the importance of active listening. Children should be taught to stop whatever else they are doing, focus on the speaker, anticipate what the speaker will say, and then replay the dialogue to understand the point that the speaker is trying to get across. This is often difficult for young students due to shorter attention spans, but it is important to teach patience and listening skills before responding to others.
The story below provides an example using the numbers “9” and “6”.
Two princes started a war with each other because one prince looked at the number on the table and said it was a “6” while the other said it was a “9”. The battle raged for many years. One day, a boy turned the tablecloth around, and finally, they saw each other’s point of view. The war ended, and the princes became friends.
“A teacher without empathy and compassion is as useless as a book is without light.” — Robert John Meehan
4. Help Children Deal with Strong Emotions
Social-emotional learning (SEL) provides students with strategies to cope with strong feelings and emotions while setting personal goals. SEL encourages self-reflection while engaging with others, especially those who have different perspectives than their own. It encourages children to develop interpersonal skills like resolving conflicts and working as part of a team.
Strong emotions, like anxiety, fear, and anger, can interfere with healthy decision-making and a child’s ability to focus on important tasks. SEL addresses issues like these by showing students how to recognize and understand their emotions. Understanding emotions is the key to managing them, and creates the space needed to cultivate respect for others and feel empathy.
SEL is a superior approach that helps all children, including those with behavioral challenges and those who think differently to build self-esteem and talk about their challenges. The essential tools taught via SEL benefit children socially, academically, and later, professionally. SEL prepares children for the next steps in life, whether it is the next grade level or adulthood.
“It’s not that empathy itself automatically leads to kindness. Rather, empathy has to connect to kindness that already exists. Empathy makes good people better, then, because kind people don’t like suffering, and empathy makes this suffering silent.” — Paul Bloom
5. Promote Kindness and Acceptance
Students from different backgrounds and cultures need to be taught kindness-promoting strategies that are age-appropriate. Programs, assemblies, and activities can foster a kind and empathetic learning environment that is also safe and inclusive.
Rachel’s Challenge digital and in-person programs provide these skills. Rachel’s Challenge high school programs and middle school assemblies focus on teaching how modeling, inspiring, and supporting positive behavior can help positively shape or change the culture of schools. Rachel’s Challenge introduces a story to students about an extraordinary teenage girl who spread kindness and acceptance to others, especially those who were new or different from her. Students leave the assembly with a life-changing outlook regarding inclusiveness and acceptance of others.
These resources are important to the sustainability of inclusiveness and acceptance as a norm. Rachel’s Challenge provides training and resources for student leaders as a means to continue the chain of kindness throughout the school. Talk to a representative to bring Rachel’s Challenge to your school today!