Wyjuana Montgomery

Call it putting yourself in another person’s shoes, appreciating differences, or simply imagining how someone else feels in a given situation. This is empathy. But why is teaching elementary students empathy so important?

Unless you align yourself to The Grinch (at the story’s open, of course), it’s a natural emotional response to care when you see another person suffering or experiencing some type of emotional pain over life’s challenges. You may even feel joy in response to another person’s positive life event. Oftentimes, we can relate because we’ve experienced something similar ourselves, know someone else who did, or can imagine what it may feel like.

There is, in fact, a science to why we care.

In Medical News Today, author Ana Sandoiu shares that neurologists and psychologists have found we have ten very specific areas of the brain that allow us to feel empathy (or not, if any of those areas of the brain are injured). While that gives us a scientific explanation, how can teachers transfer this lesson to the classroom?

Empathy is an important skill and must be both learned and nurtured from a young age. In positive family situations, empathy is first learned in the home as parents of multiple children teach the siblings to care for and about one another. In school and at home children are taught to consider one another’s feelings before saying something mean or hurtful. Even if one is an only child (like me), a parent or guardian can teach their child to consider others’ feelings. If teaching empathy is not focused on early, it can be difficult for children to exercise the skill later in life.

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Classroom Empathy Lessons & Virtual Empathy Activities for Elementary Students

This is why teachers and counselors play such an important role in instilling empathy in students. When students come together in group settings, they often represent differences students may not see in their homes. Whether that be socioeconomic, cultural, racial, ethnic, language, religious, and personal identity backgrounds, our students have so much to learn from one another when given the learning opportunity to focus on growing their understanding of each other.

Teach Value – Create a time to explicitly teach empathy and SEL skills to your students. We can elevate social and emotional skills by dedicating 20 minutes even once per week. You’ll begin to see your students recognizing the value because, like their other subject areas, there is a set learning time. Monday Motivation, anyone?

This could look like sharing real-life scenarios with younger students and asking them to share how they would feel and how that person’s friends could show empathy and support. For elementary teachers, The Compassion Project by EVERFI is a great no-cost resource to use with students. It’s 15 stand alone lessons that are about 20 minutes each, and it’s engaging for students grades 1-4! Older students may enjoy diving into these student experiences and discussing how one could show empathy and support in those situations.

Some students may not immediately relate or understand why their peers respond to the same situation in a different manner. We can help our students exercise empathy so they learn to take time to observe, start positive conversations, and attempt to understand versus being judgmental.

Teach Point of View – I often have to sit back and reflect on another’s point of view. Even as an adult, it can be difficult to manage my reactions. What is an example of this you can bring into your classroom? Teach students they don’t always need to agree or be on the same page with each other, but they should understand that not everyone sees things the way they do and learn to respond respectfully.  Compassion Project, sponsored by the NFL, is a great resource to help students reflect on others points of view. By reflecting on their own emotions, and learning to communicate effectively, students learn to be upstanders rather than bystanders. The 6 lessons in this course help students to think about resolving conflict and stepping in for their peers, a great practice of empathy.

An absence of empathy and open conversation can lead to the negative interactions that happen interpersonally between youth peers. Offer opportunities to alleviate these scenarios. You will find a framework for resolving conflicts and a discussion guide for teachers in this healthy relationships packet

Teach Community Circles –  Choose a “talking piece” or an object to pass around the group which signals that the holder has exclusive speaking rights. (Allowing your students to vote or pick the item can create additional buy-in.) Begin as the facilitator of the circle, introducing a topic or question that would benefit the class or small group. Once discussion builds, take a step back, allowing your students to serve as the leaders of the conversation.

You may want to create an anchor chart with agreed upon guidelines and sentence stems for sharing, as well as things not to say. As students learn how to validate feelings, it can help to show them what to say and what not to say. For example, we can encourage students to say “I’ve felt like that” instead of, “Don’t be sad.” EVERFI’s Honor Code:Bullying Prevention Course would be a great way to start this conversation since it encourages students to become leaders against bullying. When students feel empowered to support one another, these conversations become more productive and kind. This 6 lesson course also encourages a sense of community, which is key in classrooms having difficult, and sometimes uncomfortable, conversations.

When teachers take time in the classroom to utilize empathy lessons for – what it is, why it’s important and how to exercise it on a consistent basis– schools, communities and even our students’ homes will be stronger places to live in and learn in. In other words, we all need to “care.”

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Wyjuana Montgomery has been with EVERFI for 3 years. She serves as the Senior Schools Manager in Oklahoma. Wyjuana is very active in her local and global community as a teen mentor, award-winning author and international motivational speaker. Most importantly she is a daughter, sister, wife and mother demonstrating empathy in her home and for those around her.