Home Social-Emotional Learning Six Strategies for Building Empathy in the Classroom

Six Strategies for Building Empathy in the Classroom

by Diana Benner

Practicing empathy in the classroom is one of the most important skills a teacher can have., but it’s not always easy to respond to student behavior with empathy. However, you build mutual trust and rapport when you show students you understand and respect their feelings.

What Is Empathy?

According to the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley, empathy is “the ability to sense other people’s emotions, coupled with the ability to imagine what someone else might be thinking or feeling.” Empathy is a way of connecting with others that shows you understand that what they’re experiencing is something meaningful. Empathy is a powerful tool that can help you better understand what’s driving your students’ behavior.

What Empathy Isn’t

People often think that empathy is the same thing as sympathy; however, it isn’t. When you are sympathetic, you may feel sorry for or pity toward students. These sentiments might lead you to lower your expectations of them. Being empathetic does not mean you have to lower your expectations. In fact, being empathetic will reinforce your belief in your student’s ability to succeed. 

Ways to Practice Empathy in the Classroom

There are several ways you can practice empathy in the classroom. Below are a few:  

  • Listen actively. Express active interest in what your students are saying. Make them feel heard. Avoid being distracted by other things and don’t immediately try to “fix the problem.” After you understand the problem, you can then talk with your students about finding solutions or about how they want you to support them.
  • Withhold judgment. Don’t make immediate judgements of right or wrong. Set aside your own reaction and focus on listening to your students.
  • Be understanding. Try to understand your student’s feelings. If you can, look at your own experiences to find a way to connect with what your students are feeling. Put yourself in their shoes., and think about a time when maybe you felt the same way.  
  • Ask open-ended questions. When you ask open-ended questions, students can share what’s really on their minds. They will open up more as opposed to asking them yes or no questions.
  • Practice mindfulness. Being mindfully aware of your student’s behaviors is crucial for empathy. Practicing mindfulness will help you take the perspectives of other people. Check out some of these ways to practice mindfulness.
  • Show empathic body language. Empathy is expressed not just by what we say, but by our facial expressions, posture, and tone of voice. Is your posture open? Are your eyes focused on them? Are you speaking in a positive tone?

By using these tips, you’ll show students you want to understand them better and value them. To learn more, don’t forget about our self-paced Social-Emotional Learning online course. The $39 course offers more ways you can build upon social and emotional practices in your classroom. 

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Ashari December 28, 2021 - 7:43 am

Do you actually know any school or district anywhere willing to hire a deeply caring empathetic teacher? I have been relentlessly searching and have not found one yet. If you truly know of any please let me know. I’m thinking that they don’t exist. Why are we trying to teach this skill of empathy to children when we can’t allow it in adults? I want to understand the dissonance I am seeing and find ways to make things better for adult people now so children don’t have to suffer the same way others have.

Yif January 4, 2022 - 11:42 pm

Ashari, take a look at Avenues: The World School. Empathy is one of the life skills Avenues commits to cultivating in students. I am sure you will be of great help.

Andree March 12, 2023 - 2:19 pm

Ashari, Albany Unified School district in Albany California without a doubt has some of the most empathetic teachers I’ve ever met! Even the principle is deeply empathetic and compassionate to her students. Highly recommend.

Katelyn Richards October 28, 2023 - 3:15 pm

The definition of empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another person.


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