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  • Writer's pictureKaren Caswell

Spark Empathy: Exploring Empathy With Learners

Updated: May 16, 2020

I recently read a blog post by Trevor Mackenzie, ‘What are the Conditions in which Learning Thrives?’, in which he wrote:

In my opinion learning thrives is when students are engaged and find meaning in their experience at school and in their learning. They feel fulfilled. They feel happy. They feel, at times challenged and stretched. They feel ownership and pride. They feel belonging. They feel. I have witnessed that when this all occurs, when learning thrives, achievement increases.

Trevor identified ten conditions he has observed that nurture the whole child and help them flourish. I agree that each condition is vital, and I will share my thinking around each over the coming weeks, but I’m going to start by focusing on empathy.


We began the year with a focus on kindness in our class, identifying how easy it is to be kind, and the positive impact that being kind can have on others, as well as ourselves. As the 4K Kindness Crew, attention to being kind continued throughout the year. As the year progressed, our focus on kindness naturally grew from being friendly and considerate to others, to include how we can understand and help others. Now that we are approaching the tail end of our school year, I want to deepen understanding of empathy, and help students learn how to put empathy into action.

Empathy (noun): the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.

Empathy is one of the five elements of emotional intelligence and is one of the most important social skills a child, or anyone, can learn. The ability to recognise how people feel is important to success in your life. But even more importantly, empathy is a necessary skill to have in order to make a meaningful contribution to the world.

The benefits of teaching empathy in the classroom include building positive classroom culture and strengthening the community. Students learn to understand one another and build friendships based on trust.

To help our students develop the skill of empathy we can:

  • Model empathy

  • Listen actively

  • Teach empathy explicitly

Two of the most useful strategies to explicitly teach empathy are through literature and real life empathy opportunities.

Teaching Empathy Through Literature

Characters and conflicts in books can expose children to a range of social situations that children may or may not have experienced themselves. By exposing children to these resources, teachers can prompt and guide discussions related to characters’ emotions, as well as children’s personal feelings about characters or conflicts in the story. These discussions, as well as strategic questioning on the part of the teacher, will allow students to engage in empathy practices.

Some books we are going to use for our cohort Empathy Read Aloud over the coming months include Stolen Girl; Ziba Came on a Boat; The Little Refugee; Fly Away Home; Thank You Mr Falker and Emmanuel’s Dream. I also love the book Wonder; The One and Only Ivan; A Long Walk to Water; Malala’s Magic Pencil; Last Stop on Market Street; and You, Me and Empathy. Do you have any favourites? Please let me know what they are and I will curate a collection to share.

We often hear the phrase, ‘put yourself in their shoes’ in relation to empathy. However, as Allyson Apsey states in “The Path To Serendipity”, empathy is NOT putting yourself in someone else’s shoes - it is imagining how the other person is feeling in their own shoes, based on their past experiences. We cannot put the lens of our experiences over the diverse experiences of others. We must be careful not to slip into sympathy – feeling for others – instead of empathy – feeling with others. As Brene Brown writes, 'Empathy is not connecting to an experience. Empathy is connecting to the emotions that underpin the experience."

Creating Real Life Empathy Opportunities

What better way for students to learn empathy than to experience it firsthand? Creating opportunities for students to experience empathy in a way that is authentic can be the best way for them to apply what they have learned through empathy literature.

There are many ways to offer these opportunities to students, but inquiry based learning appeals to me. Starting a unit with a provocation or a BIG question – whether it be around the personal experience of another or a real world problem that needs a solution – is a powerful way to encourage students to practise empathy.

Problems that need solutions can be local, such as within the class, school or community eg. reducing waste within the school; national, such as a problem that is country wide or in a particular area of the country eg. drought; or global, such as The Global Goals for Sustainable Development. The key is that the problem needs to be real in order to spark empathy in learners to engage in authentic problem solving and to feel empowered to help. It is amazing the innovative and creative solutions to real world problems our students propose when give the opportunity!

Through intentionally cultivating the conditions where we can model and nurture empathy, we are helping our students learn one of life’s most defining and important human qualities. People with empathy are understanding, kind, caring, compassionate, courageous, successful, are problem solvers, have meaningful relationships, and are happier. Empathy is what drives us to challenge the status quo and make the world better!


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