Understanding and Developing Empathy

Barak Obama once said:  “Learning to stand in somebody else’s shoes, to see through their eyes, that’s how peace begins. And it’s up to you to make that happen. Empathy is a quality of character that can change the world.”

Empathy is the ability to understand or feel what another person is experiencing from within their frame of reference, from their perspective. It is the capacity to step into the shoes of another and use that to guide our actions. It is a crucial component to connecting with others and being an active participant in a well-connected and compassionate society.

Empathy differs from sympathy, where one is moved by the thoughts and feeling of others, but from an emotional distance.  Brené Brown explains the difference between sympathy and empathy in a wonderful animation

RSA Short: Empathy

A sympathetic person tries to simply put a silver lining on the other person’s situation without acknowledging their pain, while an empathetic person attempts to feel the pain with the person without minimising it. It is about climbing down the hole to sit beside the person, making yourself vulnerable to genuinely connect with them.

Empathy also differs from the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do to you”.  As George Bernard Shaw points out  “Do not do unto others as you would have them do unto you—they might have different tastes.” Empathy is about discovering and understanding those tastes.

Empathy has the potential to transform individual lives for the better, while also helping to bring about positive social change in schools and communities worldwide. It is a skill that is strengthened through life lessons and guidance. In helping our children to become more empathic, we help them to create more opportunities for success in both school and in other aspects of their lives. So how do we help our children develop empathy?

Developing Emotional Awareness

Before our children can empathise, they need to be able to read emotions. All too often, we adults just assume that an understanding of emotions comes naturally. However, although children have feelings, they often are not able express them effectively if they lack the language to express their emotions. Children that are able to recognise feelings are better emotionally adjusted, tend to be more popular, outgoing and resilient. Studies have indicated that they also score higher academically. Empathy flourishes in environments that promote face-to-face connection and as such, researchers are concerned that the digital focus for our youth today may be reducing children’s ability to recognise emotions in others, placing their empathetic capacities at risk.

As adults, we need to make a concerted effort to teach feelings, in the same way you would letters, colours or numbers. You can improve your child’s emotional vocabulary by keeping an emotion vocabulary board, displaying all different emotion words. Children should recognise that there are multiple shades to every emotion, from irritated to irate and content to elated. Make these words part of the norm so that children can learn to use them effectively.

Teach social cues. Children who struggle with skills for empathy can greatly benefit from learning about facial expressions, body language, and tone of voice. These are important cues for them to start recognising the thoughts and feelings of others.

Developing Self-Regulation

Self-regulation is the ability to manage emotions and behaviour according to the situation.  It allows children to keep their emotions in check and recognise the feelings of others, empathise, and calmly think of how to help. If a child is too distressed, they shut down their empathetic instincts because they cannot think clearly enough to help. Regulating emotions begins by teaching children how to recognise, and deal with, their stress triggers before they get to the point of overload. Quiet time, structured breathing, mindfulness meditation and yoga have been shown to reduce stress and nurture empathy.  Interestingly, self-regulation also boosts academic performance, with research showing that the ability to manage emotions is a better predictor of academic achievement than IQ.

Developing Moral Identity

A child’s inner value system, or moral identity, can inspire empathy, motivate compassion and shape character. Children are most likely to learn moral identity from adults that model, instruct and expect them to care about others. This poses a problem in modern day culture where many of the ‘role models’ do not necessarily demonstrate that they have a strong ethical or moral compass. As parents and educators, it is important that we understand what we stand for, what we won’t stand for and how we are expected to behave in order to become good moral role models for our children.

Perspective Taking

In To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch says:  “If you just learn a single trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view . . . until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”  

Perspective taking is the cognitive side of empathy . It refers to a person’s ability to consider a situation from a different point of view. It requires you to put yourself in the other person’s position and imagine what you would feel, think, or do if you were in that situation and is crucial for today’s children in our globalised world.  Whether it’s connecting with others across the globe through technology, debating an issue from various sides, understanding conflict from different points of view, perspective taking helps children question their assumption and stretch their horizons. Use situations to encourage children to think about how they might feel. Then have them think about how someone else might feel. This is a critical component of empathy because how we feel might not be how someone else might feel.

Use optical illusions to teach perspective-taking. Optical illusions are a fantastic way to teach perspective-taking because they show children that we all think differently. Here are a few examples of optical illusions that can be interpreted differently.

Two profiles or a vase?

A duck or rabbit?

You can also give your children examples from your own in life in which you may have argued or disagreed with someone simply because they had a different point of view. This is beautifully illustrated in the parable of the blind men and an elephant. As the story goes:

“ A group of blind men heard that a strange animal, called an elephant, had been brought to the town, but none of them were aware of its shape and form. Out of curiosity, they said: “We must inspect and know it by touch, of which we are capable”. So, they sought it out, and when they found it they groped about it. The first person, whose hand landed on the trunk, said, “This being is like a thick snake”. For another one whose hand reached its ear, it seemed like a kind of fan. As for another person, whose hand was upon its leg, said, the elephant is a pillar like a tree-trunk. The blind man who placed his hand upon its side said the elephant, “is a wall”. Another who felt its tail, described it as a rope. The last felt its tusk, stating the elephant is that which is hard, smooth and like a spear.”  The moral of the story being that while one’s subjective experience is true, it may not be the totality of truth.

Moral Imagination

Literature can enhance empathy and help to feel with the characters. Short stories and novels can help children to think about the emotions and motives of the characters. Asking questions such as:  How do you think they are feeling right now? Why do they feel that way? What might they be thinking? How would you feel if you were in their shoes? What might they do next?

Books can also help children explore lives and beliefs different from their own, help them to see a situation from different perspectives.

Examples of books to teach children empathy

Wonder – J. Palacio

Out of My Mind – Sharon. Draper

The One and Only Ivan – Katherine Applegate

Brown Girl Dreaming – Jacqueline Woodson

El Deafo – Cece Bell

Inside Out and Back Again – Thanhha Lai

Fish in a Tree – Lynda Hunt

Similar to literature, videos and movie clips can be a strategy to think about the emotions of characters. This may be a helpful tactic for children who struggle with reading or just a fun activity for the end of the week. Just play a quick video clip (or watch a whole movie) and discuss the characters’ feelings, thoughts, motivations, and reactions. Emotionally charged films and images not only inspire empathetic feelings but can even encourage charitable giving.

Examples of movies to teach children empathy

*Please note that some of these are PG

Inside Out

E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial

Remember the Titans

Beauty and the Beast


Billy Elliott

The Perks of Being a Wallflower

Freaky Friday

Practice Kindness

Kindness is about being thoughtful without expecting anything in return. Being kind is what helps children tune into the feelings and needs of others, they learn to become more “we” oriented and less “me” oriented.  Socially, acts of kindness cultivate shared happiness, build relationships, and give people a sense of connectedness to a group, community, or place. As children develop compassion and empathy, they learn to recognize that their words and actions have an impact on others. This feeling of interconnectedness helps them reflect on their responses to the words and actions of others, as well as better monitor and control their emotional responses. Practicing compassion and empathy through skill-builders like committing random acts of kindness, builds the social and emotional competence that children need in order to be resilient and confident. Research has shown that children who are socially responsible, trust their classmates, and solve interpersonal problems in adaptive ways achieve better academically than those who do not.

Each kind act encourages children to notice others (“I see how you feel”), care (“I’m concerned about you”), empathise (“I feel with you”), and help and comfort them (“Let me help you ease your pain”). Practicing kindness can also change children’s self-image and behaviour. If children sees themselves as kind, they are more likely to act kindly. Kindness also can start a surge of beneficial effects not only for the receiver, but for the giver. As Bob Kerrey says:  “Unexpected kindness is the most powerful, least costly, and most underrated agent of human change.”

Kindness is strengthened by seeing, hearing, and practicing kindness. Let it start with you.

Effective Listening

One of the most common obstacles to empathic relationships is that effective listening is difficult, and often children don’t listen to one another in conversation. We need to learn to listen with the intent to understand, not the intent to reply.

Conflict resolution

Once your child has the language and experience to discern how their behaviour affects others, encourage them to resolve conflict by asking them to stop and try to see the situation from the perspective of each participant.

Teach your child to respectfully disagree. Part of building empathy means recognising that others can think differently from you. Help children to learn the skills to accept and respect the opinions of others when they disagree. Encourage them to use phrases like, “I see your point,” and “I have a different point of view, but I see where you are coming from.”

Collaboration and Teamwork

Empathy is not a solitary act. .Working together on common goals can help children make the shift from “me” to “we.”  This will apply principally to a school situation, where cooperative learning can enhance achievement and boosts empathy skills like listening for feelings and perspective taking. Many collaborative practices support empathy education and academic growth.  Teamwork projects can strengthen students’ abilities to encourage others, resolve conflicts, and disagree respectfully—important aspects of empathy. Collaboration also broadens students’ social spheres, preparing them for a diverse world.

Be an Everyday Hero

We need to help our children become everyday heroes, an upstander, to develop moral courage to stand up for others because they believe deep down it is the right thing today. Moral courage is the inner strength that motivates children to act on their empathetic urges and help others despite the potential consequences. Demonstrating moral courage is not always easy, but children who do so have shown increased resilience, creativity, confidence, willpower, and school engagement.

Lessons that help children recognise that even ordinary people like themselves can do extraordinary things are invaluable. They can be found  throughout history, with individuals like Nelson Mandela, real life examples of first responders or whistle blowers, or even in fictional characters such a Harry Potter  This can then lead to discussions  about how courage helps us do extraordinary things. Kids need heroes to inspire their courage. Also teach your children to be aware of the bystander effect, biases and prejudices and how to develop their own heroic traits and skills.

The heroic imagination project has a number of great resources to read on how to be an everyday hero (https://www.heroicimagination.org/library)

Raising Changemakers

Encouraging children to help others can activate empathy and help them see themselves as changemakers: people who make positive changes and inspire others to follow.  Empathy and compassion go hand-in-hand. Encourage children to think about the community and world by doing community service acts. School service projects, whether bringing toys to a community shelter or delivering books to a senior home, can help children see the world through others’ eyes. And they can be valuable learning experiences. Community service helps children understand they can improve their world by taking action. To be driven by the passion to do so,  not for it look good on résumés, this is what we want for the world and it all begins with empathy.