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3 Great ideas on how to teach empathy to K-12 students

A few weeks ago, the New York Times published “An Adult’s Guide to Social Skills, for Those Who Were Never Taught”, an interesting read for all educators who want to go beyond the mere teaching of a given subject.

Granted, it’s essential to teach students all they need to know about math, languages, biology, physics, chemistry, history, geography and so on. Getting to know a little bit about nature, life, and culture and how they are approached by different branches of science (including social sciences and humanities) will help students find what they like and maybe choose a future profession.

But a good life is not all about finding the right profession or your true calling, especially in times like these, when one might change their profession and reinvent their career every decade, or even more often than that. Grown-up life is also about building and maintaining relationships, and empathy is a key skill that can help us relate better to other people, understand their reactions, their concerns, and their emotions.

Read more: How to enhance students’ work-ready skills

3 Great ideas on how to teach empathy to K-12 students

When we talk about empathy (and other aspects of emotional intelligence, such as self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, and socialization), we tend to see it as an innate ability: you either have it or you don’t.

However, empathy can be taught and the earlier we teach it, the better.

In K-12 education, teaching empathy might help students deal with their insecurities, improve their self-esteem and boost their abilities to make friends.

Read more: The benefits of an empathic mindset approach to classroom management

Let’s see how we can teach empathy in schools and better prepare our students for adulthood:

Multicultural education

Teaching students about other cultures is becoming increasingly important in an already diverse and interconnected society. Learning about other cultures might show students that we are not all that different and might help them focus on things we have in common, such as shared values and ideals, instead of rejecting differences and perceiving them as threats.

Embracing cultural diversity is an enriching experience for both children and adults because being exposed to different ways of thinking and different ways of seeing life might help us tackle problems from another point of view and identify “out of the box” solutions.

For example, the next idea is inspired by the traditions of a different culture.

An empty chair program

It is a concept inspired by a Yiddish tradition during Passover Meal when families leave an empty chair at the table for someone dear who passed away. It’s a way of coping with grief, mourning, and a manner of keeping the memory alive.

You can implement this program in any classroom, but also in school board meetings, assemblies, or even PTA meetings. The concept is to have an empty chair for those who could not attend the meeting or the class.

For instance, when a child is sick and unable to come to school for a few days, an empty chair will remind their colleagues that they might miss out on things happening those days. Maybe some will feel encouraged to call their colleague to catch up.

When important decisions are made in a meeting or an assembly, an empty chair will remind those who are present to take into account the point of view of those who are absent.

A restorative practices program

It is an excellent approach to conflict-resolution and it might help students improve their relationship with colleagues. The core idea of this program is to look for solutions instead of punishments for bad behavior.

For example, when a student hurts a colleague, using aggressive words or aggressive behavior, instead of punishing the one who made the mistake, this approach suggests spending time with both to identify the root cause of the aggressive behavior and understand the situation. The next step is trying to identify remedial solutions for the relationship.

In a nutshell, this is all about teaching children how to cope with difficult situations and how to fix relationships.

As adults, we need to manage conflicts. Knowing how to cope with difficult personalities is very important in our professional and personal lives.

Read more: Transforming our schools through empathy

Final remark

Do not disregard social skills in K-12 education, as they shape the adults of tomorrow. And we would all like to live in a nicer, kinder, and more empathetic world!