What are the most important traits to encourage during a child’s development?
This is an inherently personal question, one that will provoke a wide variety of answers from parents, educators, and researchers around the world.
This article focuses on two traits in particular: kindness and empathy. While we won’t argue that they’re the most important traits for a child to develop, it could be argued that they’re among the traits most in need of encouragement in young people.
Many people think that children naturally develop kindness and empathy, so it might be assumed that time spent focusing on those traits would be better spent on studying math, practicing the piano, or playing basketball. Indeed, these two traits do often develop without any special attention paid to them.
However, most people can agree that the world would be better if we all displayed more kindness and empathy. Imagine how different classrooms, offices, organizations, and homes around the world might be if we spent more time encouraging those traits during childhood development.
Read on to learn how to target kindness and empathy development by building on our natural tendencies and enhancing our capacity to care about others.
This article contains:
How to Teach Kindness
How do you teach something as important as kindness to children? This likely sounds like a very daunting task. The good news is that kindness is a natural human response that likely won’t need much prodding or encouragement. However, it is something that should be practiced regularly to ensure that it will stick with kids throughout childhood and into adulthood.
Kindness can be taught at home or in the classroom, and preferably, it’s taught in both contexts.
There are many strategies for teaching kindness—far too many to include them all here—but below are six solid strategies to start with (Proud to be Primary, 2017).
Brainstorm Ideas as a Class (or a Family)
Children (and adults) are more likely to be engaged and involved in something they helped create or develop. With this concept in mind, brainstorming ideas on how to be kind as a class should instill a sense of ownership in kids that helps them feel excited about practicing kindness.
You can brainstorm as a large group with open-ended questions like, “What was something kind you saw someone do lately—big or small?” Write down the students’ responses on a whiteboard or chalkboard and break them into two categories (big vs. small), but be sure to emphasize the importance of small acts of kindness in addition to grand gestures.
You can also have students brainstorm independently by passing out a notecard to each child and instructing the students to write down something nice that someone else did for them lately and how it made them feel. Once the students are done, collect the notecards and read them aloud in order to help the students understand acts of kindness.
Random Acts of Kindness
Once students understand what acts of kindness are, introduce them to the idea of random acts of kindness. Sharing this idea with students can encourage them to show kindness to their friends and families in unexpected ways.
One method is to use complimentary notes or positive sticky notes. Provide the class with a supply of sticky notes and explain that anyone can take a sticky note at any time and write down a compliment for another student. They should sneak the sticky note onto that student’s desk when he or she is not looking to make it truly random and fun.
Another method is to use thank-you notes. Give your students some time to write down their appreciation for someone who recently did something nice for them, and encourage them to deliver their notes as soon as they can.
Acts of Kindness Challenge
Challenging your students to a competition can be an effective motivator for increasing kindness. In this challenge, students will recognize when someone does something nice for them unexpectedly and surprise others with random acts of kindness themselves.
Give the students a goal to meet, such as performing three kind acts per week or noticing five kind acts per week. To keep them excited about the challenge, give them star stickers to add to a classroom chart or a paper cutout to stick on a bulletin board when they meet their goal.
While you are encouraging students to be kinder to others, make sure to practice some kindness yourself. Give each student at least one compliment before the end of the day. Before letting your students go for the day, tell them that you purposely complimented each of them during the day and that you noticed a positive change in the classroom mood. Explain that these positive changes are common outcomes of practicing kindness.
Read Books About Kindness
Depending on how old your students are, you might want to read them one of these age-appropriate books about practicing kindness.
For kindergarteners to second-graders, Nancy Elizabeth Wallace’s The Kindness Quilt is a good book to read and discuss.
For more advanced readers, Carol McCloud’s Have You Filled a Bucket Today? will teach students the idea that everyone carries an invisible bucket that can be filled with compliments and kindness.
Classroom lessons on kindness can also have a big impact on how kind students tend to be. There are many lessons out there of various lengths that utilize different methods of teaching kindness.
For ideas on how to incorporate classroom lessons on kindness into your teaching, click here.
Rewards and Positive Reinforcement
Finally, you can use rewards and positive reinforcement to encourage more kindness in the classroom. This can be as simple as a moment of praise or a sticker, or something more personal like a kindness card or a certificate of kindness.
You can even recruit the other students to help you pass out rewards for students caught being kind.
Many of these can be adapted for use in the home as well as the classroom.
However, the most important thing to remember when it comes to teaching kindness is to model the behavior you hope to see in the children—be kind yourself, and they will be more likely to mirror that kindness.
7 Kindness Activities for Elementary Students, Preschoolers, and Middle Schoolers
A quick Google search will reveal dozens, if not hundreds, of kindness activities for children and students. We’ve listed some of our favorites below.
1. Temperature Check
This is one of the simplest activities described in this article, but its potential to encourage a positive emotional state should not be underestimated. Utilizing the Temperature Check is as easy as asking a single question at the beginning of class:
“How are you feeling today?”
Not only will this let the students know that someone cares about how they are feeling, but it also signals to them that sometimes they’ll be feeling something negative—and that there’s nothing wrong with that.
We can all use this reminder that we are human and are all subject to emotions and feelings that we’d rather not have. This reminder can be especially helpful for teenagers, who are likely dealing with more intense and varied emotions than people of other age groups.
After asking this question, you can instruct students to turn and talk to their neighbor, or share with the whole class. Starting the day with this activity can get students in the right frame of mind to be more kind and empathetic towards one another, and it can alert you to potential problems with specific students.
You can read more about this activity here.
2. Community Circle
Before beginning this activity, choose a “talking piece”—this is an object that is passed around the group and signals that the holder has exclusive speaking rights. You can use a stuffed animal, a small beach ball, or any object that is easy to hold and pass around.
If you can, remove the desks or tables from the classroom. If this is not possible, you can either push the desks and chairs to the perimeter of the room, arrange the chairs in a circle, or sit on the floor with the whole class.
Tell your students that in the Community Circle, only one person may talk at a time and everyone else must listen quietly and respectfully. Show the class the talking piece and explain that only the individual holding the talking piece may speak.
First, have the students pass the talking piece around the circle as a way to check in with each student. This is a good opportunity for everyone to practice holding and passing the talking piece, as well as an opportunity for students to say a few quick words about how they are feeling or what is on their mind.
As the teacher/facilitator of the activity, introduce a topic or ask a question that you would like the circle to respond to. However, after you have sparked the conversation, make sure to take your seat in the circle and become a member rather than a leader.
This activity can be a good way to start the day, end the day, or simply encourage community and kindness at any time.
It is especially useful after something particularly emotional or traumatic happens, whether that event took place in the classroom, in your city, or on another continent.
The Community Circle helps students relate to one another, and it can encourage students to accept and share feelings that may be difficult to talk about.
Check out this link for a description of this activity and other similar activities.
3. Good Things
This is a quick and easy activity you can try with children of nearly any age. It’s an especially good idea to use this positive, mood-boosting activity to start class (or your day, if you’re at home).
Instruct each student to turn to one of their neighbors and tell him or her something good. Specifically, you can have them finish one of these positive “talking stems,” or prompts (Alber, 2017):
- One good thing in my life is . . .
- Something good that happened is . . .
Encourage the kids to be creative with their “good thing,” but if they’re having trouble coming up with something, assure them that the good thing can be as small as eating something they liked for dinner last night.
Once all students have shared a good thing with their partners, open it up to the entire classroom. Ask for volunteers who would like to share their good thing with the class, or volunteers who have given their neighbors permission to share their good things for them.
This is an excellent activity to get kids in a positive mood, and it’s appropriate for kids of all ages—even teenagers can find at least one good thing in their lives.
Sharing the good thing will put the students in a more positive frame of mind, and sharing something personal and good with others will make them feel heard and affirmed by others.
If you’d like to read about this activity and others like it, follow this link.
4. The Write Around
If you’re more interested in getting kids writing than talking, this is a similar activity that can get everyone in a more positive mood. Given the nature of this activity, it will only be suitable for classes where everyone has at least some writing ability—so it likely won’t work for a classroom of preschoolers.
First, you will need to put together a handout with seven sentence stems (or prompts) on it (Alber, 2017):
- One idea I’ve gotten from you is . . .
- I really like your personality because . . .
- I know I can count on you when . . .
- I really appreciate when you . . .
- Some adjectives that describe you are . . .
- I am impressed by the way you . . .
- I look forward to seeing you because . . .
Make sure to leave plenty of room for students to finish these sentences, especially if they are younger writers. Next, pass out the handouts and ask each student to write only their name at the top of the paper. Collect the handouts and pass them out once again, randomly this time. Make sure each student received a different student’s handout.
Instruct the students to be silent for a few minutes while they write something about the person whose handout they received. They can respond to just one sentence stem or several if they have more good things to say about the person.
After the few minutes are up, have each student pass the handout to another student (not the handout’s owner, yet). Encourage the students to complete whichever sentence stem calls to them, whether another student has completed it or not.
After doing a few rounds of this, pass all of the papers back to their owners and give them a chance to read all of the nice things their peers have written about them.
If you’d like to continue the positivity, you can ask for volunteers to share one or two of the nice things on their handout. It will make the reader feel good, the writer feels good, and encourage everyone to be a little more positive.
If you’d like to read about this activity at the source, click here.
5. Appreciation Box
Another activity that can help students practice their writing while injecting a little positivity into the classroom is the Appreciation Box (Alber, 2017).
First, create a box to leave in the back of the classroom. This can be an opportunity to get creative and make a box that reflects the class, or you can have the class help you create the box. For example, you could have the class vote on a theme for the box, or each student could pick out one small space on the box to decorate however he or she would like.
Wherever you place the box, make sure to leave small slips of paper or sticky notes nearby. Tell students that they can use the box to write down positive messages, thank-you notes, or messages of appreciation or encouragement to their fellow students or the teacher, teaching assistant, or another adult in the classroom.
The students may need some examples of what to write. Model what a good appreciation message sounds like by reading a few sample messages out loud with the class.
You have a couple of options when it comes to reading the notes of appreciation:
- You can open up the box every few days and read all the notes to the class;
- You can take out a few notes and read them to the class every day (early in the day to encourage positivity in the classroom or late in the day to end class on a positive note);
- You can give students a set amount of time to contribute to the box, then distribute the notes to their intended recipients at the end of that period (i.e., the last class before winter break or summer vacation).
You can choose any of these methods or create your own method that works for your class. The important thing is that each student should eventually get to hear or read a note of thanks or appreciation that someone has written about him or her.
This activity encourages students to be kind to one another and to be on the lookout for positive things to write down and slip into the appreciation box.
You can read more about this activity and others like it here.
If you have a particularly chatty class or a class that hasn’t mastered writing yet, doing shout-outs can be a good substitute for the appreciation box.
Your students will likely need some modeling to get comfortable with this activity, especially if you have a lot of shy kids in your class. Plan at least a couple of weeks of modeling shout-outs before encouraging your students to join in.
There are many ways to start a shout-out, but Alber (2017) suggests these three positive sentence stems:
- I really like how . . .
- I noticed that . . .
- I’d like to give a shout-out to . . .
Use sentiments like these to thank students for their contributions, praise them for a job well-done, or call out an act of kindness.
Eventually, your students may pick up on what you’re doing and start making their own shout-outs. However, you may need to specifically encourage them to join you in calling out fellow students for praise or thanks.
This activity can be a great way to end the day. Spending just a few minutes on it at the end of class can boost everyone’s mood, give students a chance to publicly appreciate one another, and send students home riding a wave of positivity and kindness.
You can read about this activity and other, similar activities at this link.
7. Buddy Up
This fun and easy activity will encourage your students to help one another.
It’s as simple as assigning each student a buddy—you can let the students pick their own buddies, you can choose partners for them, or you can alternate between both methods (Alber, 2017). If your students tend to stick with their existing friend groups or cliques, assigning a buddy rather than letting them choose may be more effective.
You don’t have to use the word “buddy”; instead, pick a word that fits well with your class’s interests.
If your students are crazy about cowboys and cowgirls, you can go with “partner”—in an old Western accent, of course. If you have a lot of young kids who aspire to become pilots, you can use the term “copilot.” If your classroom is an older one with a good sense of humor, you can say they’ll pair up with a “wingman” or “wingwoman.”
Whatever terminology you choose, the activity is the same—students will work with their buddies and turn to their buddies first when they need help.
For example, if a student missed a day of class and needs copies of handouts or lecture notes, she should first ask her buddy. Or, if a student is having trouble with a concept that’s being taught, he should first check in with his buddy to see whether he or she can explain it before asking another person.
You’ve probably noticed a theme—whatever issue or problem a student is having (unless it’s an emergency), he or she should first work one-on-one with a buddy to attempt to solve it. If that fails, the student can ask the teacher.
To make sure students get a chance to work on their relationship skills with a wide range of people and personalities, have them switch buddies regularly. They can find a new buddy each week, every other week, every month, or any period of time that works for your class.
This activity will give your students ample opportunity to build communication skills, practice accountability, and be kind to one another.
Click this link to read about this activity and similar kindness-provoking activities.
World Kindness Day Activities
Have you ever heard of World Kindness Day? It’s an international day of kindness recognized by countries around the world that encourages everyone to look beyond the boundaries of race, religion, and politics and to appreciate the humanity in all of us.
World Kindness Day is the perfect time to practice kindness, whether it’s toward family members, friends, coworkers, or strangers.
While many of the activities and exercises are perfect for World Kindness Day, the Random Acts of Kindness Foundation also has a list of 10 easy activities you can do to celebrate the holiday.
The activities are:
- Compliment the first three people you talk to;
- Write a handwritten note to a teacher;
- Say “good morning” to the person next to you on the elevator (or bus, or subway, or street);
- Pick up litter. Spend 10 minutes cleaning a park or your neighborhood;
- Place uplifting notes in library books, on restroom mirrors, on someone’s locker, or on a coworker’s computer screen;
- Dedicate 24 hours to spreading positivity on social media;
- Hold up inspiring signs during rush hour;
- Leave a generous tip;
- Send flowers to a friend;
- Set an alarm to go off three times on World Kindness Day. When the alarm sounds, stop what you’re doing and call, text, or email someone simply to tell them how awesome they are (The Random Acts of Kindness Foundation, 2013).
If that’s not enough for you, here are five more ideas from The Random Acts of Kindness Foundation (2016):
- Positive Sticky Notes: Leave sticky notes with positive messages (i.e., “You are amazing, smart, and talented”) on your friends’ (or strangers!) lockers or your coworkers’ desks;
- Thank-You Letter: Write (and send!) an anonymous letter to someone you respect in your school, workplace, or other community space;
- RAK Bulletin Board: Create a bulletin board in your school or workplace and provide plenty of paper in fun shapes or designs on which people can write about the random acts of kindness they have received or benefitted from;
- RAK Calendar: Download the random acts of kindness calendar sheet here and share it with your students. Challenge students to complete all 30 acts of kindness or at least one in each of the five categories (On the Playground, In the Hallway, In the Classroom, Towards Adults, and Towards Kids);
- Custodian Appreciation: Have your students write letters and put up signs showing their appreciation for the people who keep the school clean and tidy. Encourage your students to make a special effort to keep the classroom clean to lighten the custodians’ workload.
For more ideas on how to celebrate World Kindness Day with random acts of kindness, click here.
How to Teach Empathy
There are also many ways to teach empathy to children, a construct that’s similar to yet distinct from kindness.
While kindness involves acts of goodwill, smiles, and positive words, empathy is about earnest listening, relating to one another, and putting yourself in someone else’s shoes.
There are many ways to introduce, discuss, and encourage empathy in the classroom, including tackling empathy directly by including it in the curriculum (Crowley & Saide, 2016).
For example, if you teach language arts, have the class define empathy and identify characters in literature that demonstrate empathy. Or, if you teach public speaking, highlight the importance of empathizing with one’s audience—students should think about who their audience is and how to best relate to that audience before stepping to the podium.
You could also take some concrete steps to inject your classroom with a culture of empathy, steps like (Crowley & Saide, 2016):
- Reading stores from the perspective of characters similar to your students;
- Following a student schedule for a day;
- Surveying students frequently to help students understand what is in the minds of their peers.
Just as modeling kindness is vital to teaching the concept to students, so is modeling empathy. The most important thing you can do to encourage empathy in your students is to use empathy yourself, whether with your students, other teachers, or even with fictional characters.
Show your students how to be empathetic towards others, even if you don’t agree with that person or are not necessarily sympathetic towards them.
As noted earlier, it is vital to start teaching kindness and empathy early on, but adults are also capable of increasing their capacity for empathy. The following resources are good sources of information on teaching empathy to adults:
- This PDF from Portland State University is meant to accompany a workshop on building empathy. It defines empathy, introduces the theory behind the workshop, and describes three exercises that can be practiced to enhance empathy in adults.
- This PDF from Dr. Lawrence J. Bookbinder and Jan Johnson makes an excellent handout for an empathy-building class or for clients in counseling who want to increase their empathy. It defines empathy, describes why it’s an important trait to have, and explains how to practice it, how it will benefit those you care about, and how it will benefit you personally.
4 Empathy Worksheets for Students & Adults (PDFs)
While it’s important to instill kindness and empathy as early as possible, it’s never too late to learn how to be more empathetic. There are many worksheets and activities for students, adolescents, and adults to enhance their capacity for empathy.
Below is a list of some worksheets and exercises that work well for students and adults.
Practicing Empathic Listening
This is a very useful exercise that can encourage empathy in people of all ages. Therapists are advised to begin with an explanation of what empathetic listening involves – use these main elements to give a good flavor for the approach as a whole:
- Keeping one’s comments and opinions to oneself – concentrate on not talking while the other person is talking;
- Maintaining good eye contact and pay attention while looking directly at them;
- Pausing where required;
- When the other person stops talking try to paraphrasing key words or translate what he or she said – this is reflecting what you believe you have heard to ensure a clear understanding exists;
- Remaining focused on the other person as they talk;
- Considering their perspective – that is, listening in order to fully understand what the other is saying rather than preparing your reply;
- Communicating non-verbally with encouraging body language (such as nodding), while being aware of their non-verbal cues; and
- Identifying or reflecting the speaker’s feelings, for example, you can say, “You sound angry,” or “You seem to be upset.”
Listening might sound like an easy thing to do, but there is a big difference between listening without paying much attention and active listening. Active listening is the best way to connect with another person and is vital for healthy relationships.
To see these steps in full, download the Practicing Empathic Listening worksheet. The second part of this worksheet takes this general description of active listening and encourages you to apply it in your life.
Step One is Practicing Pausing/Wait Time, and it works well with subgroups of three people if you are working with a larger group. Once participants are in triads, each will have a distinct role:
- The Speaker receives a prompt: “Something I’ve been thinking about recently…” and gives a response.
- The Interviewer listens. Once the Speaker has finished, they pause. If the Speaker doesn’t say anything further, they will then share a paraphrased version of what they said, and pause again.
- The speaker may say something else – if not, the Interviewer should offer an open-ended question before pausing once more. All in all, the conversational exchange should go on for around a minute and a half.
- The third participant, the Observer, watches the interaction between the other two participants, taking in-depth notes to provide constructive feedback later. They should note the duration for each pause in seconds, and the worksheet provides a space for this.
Some of the key benefits of this exercise are also found in reflecting on the activity after each participant has had a turn at each role. Prompts for discussion include:
- What is the purpose of waiting for 3-5 seconds before speaking?
- What did you notice about the average time Listeners waited before responding? and
- How did the speaker react when the listener waited?
There are a further two parts to this exercise – Practice Paraphrasing, and Reflecting Feelings. Together, they offer a valuable and comprehensive approach to honing the Empathic Techniques introduced above.
If this exercise interests you, here are a further five steps to practicing empathic listening in a real-life situation:
- Choose a person with whom you are having relationship difficulties or a person who holds different beliefs from your own, and really try to step into their shoes. For example, try to imagine you are doing someone else’s work. You can see whether your ability to empathize increases once you understand the other person’s point of view
- Think about the conversations that you have had with that person. Consciously check your interpretations of what the person is saying;
- You can begin by focusing on the person, and before moving forward, think about what would happen if you framed the conversation with the question, “I just want to make sure I understand you. Can I clarify?” Rarely do people say no to this;
- Clarify what you’ve heard by reflecting the meanings and feelings of the other person. You can check if you fully understood the other by asking;
- When you are speaking, you can ask the other person if he or she wouldn’t mind sharing what they’ve heard you say. Then, if you feel misunderstood, you can consider how to correct his or her perception.
You can download these techniques soon as a Listening Accurately worksheet.
This worksheet can be completed individually or in a group setting. It requires some preparation, but it can be extremely helpful in differentiating between empathy and other responses.
Print out the handout found on the last page of this PDF, or copy the words to pieces of paper. The twelve squares should read:
- Shutting Down;
- Fixing It;
If you’re leading a group through this exercise, you can simply read through the dialogue between two people (labeled “A” and “B”) and instruct the group to decide which square corresponds with which conversation.
If you’re working through this worksheet on your own, have a friend write down the dialogues on a separate sheet of paper (so you don’t inadvertently see the correct pairings) and work through the activity by matching the reactions to the conversations.
The dialogues include back-and-forths such as:
A: I’m worried about having enough money to pay my bills this month.
B: I’ll loan you the money.
A: Look at my scar from the cycling accident.
B: That’s nothing, you should see the one I have on my knee.
A: I got caught in traffic for two hours in 100-degree weather and no air conditioning.
B: That reminds me of the time . . .
As you can see, each of these dialogues displays a reaction we may have when someone shares with us.
None of the three examples included here showcase empathy, but each dialogue models a particular type of reaction so that you have a chance to see them in action.
In case you’re wondering, the first dialogue corresponds to “Fixing It,” the second corresponds to “One-Upping,” and the third corresponds to “Storytelling.”
This exercise can help you or a group learn about the different ways we can respond to a friend in need of empathy, and why empathy is usually the best choice.
Learning About Empathy Worksheet
This worksheet is great for students and younger children due to the simple language and child-oriented depictions of empathy, but the message of this worksheet can be useful for older students and adults as well.
Completing this worksheet will help students learn what empathy is, how to spot empathy, how to practice empathy, and why it’s important.
The first page of this two-page handout offers the following description of empathy:
“Empathy is the caring emotion. It means the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes in order to feel what they are feeling. For example, if you saw a little girl cry because she dropped her ice cream on the ground, you might feel empathy towards her because you could relate to her sense of sadness. You might even feel a tinge of sadness yourself. This feeling of sadness or happiness because of what others experience is called empathy.”
After this definition of empathy, the second page provides space for the student to answer some prompts that will get him or her thinking about empathy.
These questions/prompts are:
- Describe a time when you’ve felt empathy toward someone else, meaning that you felt sad or happy because you could sense what they were feeling;
- What do you think is the purpose of empathy?;
- Empathy is just like any other skill: The more we practice it, the stronger it gets. What are some ways you might work to expand your empathy by showing care and concern for others?
Responding to these prompts will encourage students to think of themselves as capable of empathizing with others, to think about how to practice empathy going forward, and to think critically about why empathy is so important.
If you are interested in downloading this worksheet for your students or your clients, click here.
Mindless vs. Mindful Listening Worksheet
Mindful listening is about cultivating thorough and continued awareness of another person’s message when they are speaking. It includes listening in a non-judgmental way with an open mind, putting your own opinions, ideas, and beliefs aside for a while just to focus on listening.
Unfortunately, we are often more inclined to mindless listening, instead – thinking about the past, our future plans, or even the response that we will give. This Mindless vs. Mindful Listening worksheet aims to help you practice and become more familiar with the two types of communication; it will help you compare and contrast the experiences both as a speaker and as a listener.
- First, you will give your group therapy clients a limited about of background information regarding this exercise – later you will debrief more thoroughly. Inform them that they will form pairs, and each partner will have a chance to be talker and listener. They will be given a set of instructions about the key aspects of Mindful Listening, and they should keep these out of their partner’s sight (more on this below).
- Each participant will receive a card outlining their roles – the Storyteller receive prompts to talk about their favorite movie and how to elaborate on this for more detail. The Listener is instructed not to pay attention. By letting their mind wander and being elsewhere mentally, they will be experiencing Mindless Listening.
- Step Three allows the participants to experience Mindful Listening. The Storyteller will discuss a different topic, but this time, the Listener receives different prompts, e.g.: “Try to fully pay attention to the story”, “If you get distracted, get back to the conversation in this moment”.
- Before switching roles, the participants should take some time to reflect on the exercise. The questions encourage participants to think about how our communication can impact our ability to relate to others around us:
- What was it like to be a storyteller in the first round?
- What about being a listener the first time around?
- What is the possible purpose of this exercise?
The Mindful Listening tips can help clients practice empathy by simply listening, putting their own feelings aside and dedicating effort and time to understanding the other’s perspective. They are:
- Present moment focus – listen with the intent of giving your full attention, be present right here and now, from moment-to-moment;
- No judgment – notice and let go of your independent judgments, listening openly rather than thinking;
- Redirect – be aware of when your attention wanders, then refocus it to the conversation;
- Connect – use eye contact, give the other room to freely express themselves, and listen not just to what they’re saying, but how they say it; and
- Single focus – stop doing other things, and give all your attention to the conversation.
Download the Mindless vs. Mindful Listening Worksheet here from our Positive Psychology Toolkit.
Other Fun Empathy Exercises for the Classroom
Aside from all of the activities and exercises mentioned already, there are a few other fun exercises that can help your students build empathy.
This PDF from The Teachers Guild (2017) describes several fun exercises that you can try in your classroom or schoolwide.
Amazing Empathy Race
This activity involves the whole school, including staff members. Students are divided into teams and follow clues to activity stations that are set up throughout the school, with envelopes containing prompts and materials for the students to work with.
There are many different activities you could use here, but one good example activity is to provide students with a clue about a staff member. When they guess who the staff member is, they head to that person’s office to collect the next activity—conducting an interview and listening with compassion to the staff member.
This is a large-scale exercise, to be sure, but the payoff can be enormous in terms of enhancing empathy in the entire school.
This exercise involves students interviewing a person of their choice (inside or outside the school) and creating visual representations of what they learned. This will encourage students to practice active and compassionate listening, to put themselves in another’s shoes, and to share their stories with others.
Empathy Book Trailers
Another exercise that involves sharing stories, this activity instructs each student to select a character from a book they love (or one that you assign) and create a book trailer (similar to a movie trailer) focusing on this character and his or her experiences.
This activity will allow students to practice synthesizing events from a person’s life into feelings or needs—an important skill for any future literature and writing courses—as well as effectively relating to others in the real world.
If students do not have easy access to technology, a write-up can be substituted for the video.
These are only three of the many empathy-building exercises you can find in the Teachers Guild’s PDF. Click here to open the PDF and look for other fun exercises that can instill a culture of empathy within your school or classroom.
A Take-Home Message
There are plenty of resources out there for helping children and students to become kinder, more empathetic people. Adults can also learn these traits. It’s never too late to focus on building empathy and kindness in ourselves and in our communities.
The challenge of helping students (and adults) build kindness and empathy can seem overwhelming at first, but there are many practical ways to do it, and the outcome can be enormously positive for all involved.
What are your thoughts on teaching kindness and empathy in the classroom? How do you teach your children or students to be kind, or how do you work on building those traits in yourself? Let us know in the comments section below. We would love to hear from you.
- Alber, R. (2017, February 16). Kindness: A lesson plan. Edutopia. Retrieved from https://www.edutopia.org/blog/kindness-lesson-plan-rebecca-alber
- Crowley, B., & Saide, B. (2016). Building empathy in classrooms and schools. Education Week. Retrieved from http://www.edweek.org/tm/articles/2016/01/20/building-empathy-in-classrooms-and-schools.html
- Proud to Be Primary. (2017, May 8). Teaching kindness in the classroom. Proud to Be Primary. Retrieved from https://proudtobeprimary.com/teaching-kindness-classroom/
- Random Acts of Kindness Foundation. (2013, November 13). 10 fun ways to celebrate World Kindness Day. The Random Acts of Kindness Foundation. Retrieved from https://www.randomactsofkindness.org/the-kindness-blog/2766-10-fun-ways-to-celebrate-world-kindness-day
- Random Acts of Kindness Foundation. (2016, December 1). 5 simple classroom activities to celebrate World Kindness Day. The Random Acts of Kindness Foundation. Retrieved from https://www.randomactsofkindness.org/the-kindness-blog/1-5-simple-classroom-activities-to-celebrate-world-kindness-day