Friday, July 8, 2011

Teaching Empathy

Compassion and empathy are two things I value very dearly in life. In fact, I think they are some of the most important things we should be teaching and modeling for our students. Yet they are very different. Read the following definitions below (gleaned from

Compassion: a feeling of deep sympathy and sorrow FOR another who is stricken by misfortune, accompanied by a strong desire to alleviate the suffering.
Empathy:  the intellectual identification WITH or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another.

The two capped words speak volumes to the difference. While it is crucial to think compassionately, it is essential to practice empathy. Compassion is a much more passive activity. It is a feeling for somebody, a recognition of one's struggles. Yes this may affect decision making and lead to action, but it is not as powerful as empathy. Empathy calls for people to actually try and experience the feelings and thoughts of a particular person or group. The best way of putting this is walking a mile in their shoes. Empathy is a call to intimately place yourself in the mind and heart of another person. If this is really done, it has the unmistakable ability to foster action and critical thought to complex problems.  Thus, it is one of the reasons I think it is necessary to teach for empathy. To better prepare our future leaders to confront issues we can't even comprehend, I want empathy to be at the forefront of their thoughts and actions. This may be idealistic, but yet it makes me hopeful and excited. A world full of empathetic people and leaders is a world in which change is not possible, it is expected.


  1. Thoroughly enjoyed this post!
    I admire teachers who value the social and emotional aspects of learning.

  2. Thanks for another great post Timothy. I am going to reveal one of my pet peeves here... people who THINK they can empathize and then give advice like they have been in someone else's shoes. I think it is time for a blog post on this... thanks for the inspiration!

  3. Inspired by your post...

  4. Yes! So important. Curious--what do you suggest as great ways to teach empathy?

  5. Hi, Timothy! Just found your blog via a tweet from @gret. Nice! As I'm co-author of a just-published book that relates to teaching empathy (, I thought I'd chip in here.

    In the Values in Action (VIA) Inventory of Strengths (available for free at, empathy is part of social intelligence - one of 24 character strengths that have been valued around the world for 3000 years. (The youth version goes down to about age 10, so useful in middle school.)

    As a strength, it is naturally going to be more present in some individuals (a "signature" strength) than in others. Those for whom it is a top strength can, through learning and practice, become absolutely inspirational with it - and it can help them craft the life they desire. Those that are less inclined, or for whom it may even be a weakness, can learn to spot it in others, manage its role in their lives (perhaps by combining other strengths to achieve similar results), and train themselves and others in its role and uses.

    K. Messerly, in response to your question about teaching empathy, we can help students learn the connections between their thoughts and their feelings - a resilience skill. This helps them develop the ability to recognize and understand emotions in others - a component of emotional intelligence. See Chapter 7, in SMART Strengths. Also, chapters 9-13 in The Optimistic Child by Martin Seligman are a pretty good description of the Penn Resiliency Program (PRP), a heavily-researched program for teaching resilience to middle school students. PRP is being implemented intensively (and more research on its effects conducted) in several systems in England. This approach to resilience is now widely used in other areas, including a version that's being implemented in all levels of training for the US Army from BCT (Basic Combat Training) to the War College!

  6. Chris- Thanks for the kind words...i just commented on your post. I think you raise a very interesting point!

  7. K. Messerly-

    As far as teaching empathy, I think there are many ways to do this. I really enjoy using PBL for this and shaping driving questions that push students to look at important issues. The great part of PBL is that students often find out about things that they instantly know are wrong or need to be changed. They often do this without pressure from teachers, parents, or peers. When they present you this information you can then have that conversation with them. One of my favorite driving questions from last year was--Should Native Americans be able to have casino? They standards I was hitting dealt with not only Andrew Jackson and the overall treatment of Native Americans, but also things like Court Cases, sovereignty, and the Trail of Tears. A couple student groups wanted to describe the treatment of Native Americans as genocide. They then looked up other instances of genocide and the idea of empathy becomes tangible when they are presenting their case to their classmate. They were raising awareness right there and then.

    I also think it is something that happens in the way you treat students. You have to be a model of empathy in the way you handle and treat students. Treating them as humans and recognizing that they deserve to be treated a such, instead of emotionless response mechanisms brings this on.

    @surreallyno also passed on some great activities.

  8. Dave-

    What a comment! This is why I love blogging and connecting. I get to learn from such brilliant and inspiring people. Thanks