Top 7 Best Empathy Lesson Plans and Why You Need Them
Over the past decade, teaching empathy has surged in popularity across United States education.
Some schools may not teach it yet. Others may teach it as early as elementary schools. Some even give it a shot in middle schools and high schools.
But why is empathy important to teach? Isn’t it something that people are just born having?
And if you do have to teach it, how can you teach a soft skill that's so conceptual and non-concrete?
In this blog post, we’ll answer all of those questions so you can start teaching empathy tomorrow!
First, let’s talk about why empathy education is important.
Why You Need to Teach Empathy in the Age of the Internet
You may have noticed that people — especially students — spend a lot of time in front of screens these days.
This is problematic for two big reasons:
- The Internet allows and encourages individuals to be compassionless
- Too much screen time can damage developing brains
First, with smartphones, tablets, televisions, laptops, smartwatches, and other tech, it’s kind of hard to find a time when you’re not looking at something connected to the Internet anymore.
This is what researcher Dr. Adrian F. Ward calls “supernormal” in a research study of the same name published through the University of Colorado, Boulder. The new normal includes the transfer of information at breakneck speeds that simply wasn’t present in previous generations of humanity.
In essence, the Internet provides an avenue for individuals to change or present themselves via social media, information consumption, public announcements, and more.
That allows individuals to communicate with one another in real-time without the use of vocal tone or face-to-face contact — two key elements in positive conversation — which makes it significantly harder to use empathy when communicating.
(If you’d like an example of this, just look at anyone’s Twitter feed or a YouTube video’s comment section.)
This means it’s possible for students to grow up making snap judgments about someone’s statements.
That makes it easier for these behaviors to bleed into interpersonal relationships where someone doesn’t behave empathically because they’ve never had to consider others’ feelings in a serious way.
Second, to make matters more interesting, no one really know how Internet-connected devices impacted developing brains until 2012. It’s more than just behavior — screens actually change teens’ brains.
Dr. Fuchun Lin and Yan Zhou conducted brain scans of adolescents and teens who were considered “addicted” to the Internet. While Internet “addiction” is not widely accepted as an actual addiction, it led Lin and Zhou to some interesting discoveries.
Most notably, teens who were considered “addicted” literally lost some of their brains.
The gray matter of the insula — the part of your brain responsible for empathy — was greatly reduced in individuals who spent excessive amounts of time in front of screens.
Researchers noticed that these same teens exhibited compromised white matter, reduced cortical thickness, impaired cognitive functioning, cravings for screen-related activities, and impaired dopamine function.
Incidentally, many of these symptoms overlap with those of actual long-term drug addicts.
With these two ideas in mind — compassionless conversation and physical brain changes — it’s crucial to teach empathy at every level of a student’s development.
Now that you’re motivated to teach empathy, let’s lighten the mood with some awesome empathy lesson plans!
1. Developing Empathy (Teaching Tolerance)
Teaching Tolerance seeks to improve the world by informing today’s developing minds about compassion, acceptance, and empathy.
That’s why they have a great lesson for middle schoolers called Developing Empathy.
In this lesson plan, students will learn about empathy, practice it with one another, and incorporate empathic ideas like active listening.
They’ll learn vocabulary, pair up with partners, and discuss their feelings on different ideas you pitch.
This lesson plan is brief compared to some of the others on our list, but it’s a great starting point for students to understand empathy and how to use it.
2. Empathy in Your Classroom (The Teachers Guild)
Empathy in Your Classroom is a collection of lesson ideas from the Teachers Guild, published via Oakland University.
In it, you’ll find 11 concepts for empathy lessons complete with grade levels, instructions, and links to learn more.
These lessons have all been developed and refined by the teachers who submitted them to the Teachers Guild, making them excellent starting places if you’re teaching empathy for the first time.
Regardless, with such a wide variety of perspectives and ideas, you’re sure to find at least one lesson in this document that will fit into your curriculum.
3. Be Fearless, Be Kind: An Empathy Toolkit (Hasbro & Ashoka)
Be Fearless, Be Kind is a collaborative campaign between Hasbro and Ashoka that focuses on the social life aspect of empathy.
In this document, the publishers discuss a variety of helpful resources and measurements that you can use to help students understand empathy at different points.
One of these resources is a scale represented as a staircase that shows how students can practice and build upon empathy as a skill.
Another is a fun chart that lets students pick out how they feel when they’re feeling it.
They’ll learn about self-control, responsiveness, relationship-building, and how to become what the publishers call a “changemaker.”
Essentially, this collaborative project helps students understand empathy from just about every angle.
With this information as your base, you may be able to develop an entire quarter or semester of an empathy curriculum!
4. Empathy Activities (Preventing Bullying)
Empathy Activities from Preventing Bullying shows empathy to students through the lenses of feelings, comparisons, kindness, and helpfulness.
This is ideal for younger students, but it can also be helpful for students struggling with empathy in middle school.
The basic information shown in these activities is so simple that it may come across as common sense.
But that’s the point of teaching empathy. What may be common sense to you or someone else could be completely alien to young students who have grown up interacting primarily over the Internet.
The ideal outcome of these activities is to create a bully-free environment in a classroom and, hopefully, a school.
5. 5 Activities for Building Empathy in Your Students (Brookes Publishing Co.)
5 Activities for Building Empathy in Your Students is a collection of empathy-related classroom interactions that give students an understanding of emotions and the actions that can come from those emotions.
By using emotions as the base, these activities piggyback on one another to build empathy-related skills like active listening, showing empathy, understanding someone’s feelings, and even the opposite of empathy.
This last activity is unique in that few (if any) other lessons address what empathy doesn’t look like.
Brookes Publishing approaches this by talking about:
- Trying to solve a problem when comforting someone
- Offering unsolicited advice
- Dismissing feelings
- Using sarcasm
When students can avoid exhibiting these four qualities, Brookes Publishing contends that they’re much more likely to be conscientious and show empathy to others.
6. Start Empathy: Diversity and Respect (Minneapolis Public Schools)
Start Empathy is a program developed by Minneapolis Public Schools to teach students about understanding, respecting, tolerating, and accepting those who think, act, and look differently than themselves.
The program’s second week of instruction focuses on diversity and respect by offering a variety of lessons for students in different grade ranges:
- Middle school
- High school
These lessons are hand-tailored to these grade levels to talk about teasing (kindergarten), gender (3-5), use of the word “gay” (middle school), and group favoritism (high school).
All of the individual lessons come from Teaching Tolerance (Tolerance.org), which is another excellent resource that we’ve already mentioned in our list.
Still, the way that Minneapolis Public Schools lays out these lessons is helpful for first-time empathy teachers.
If you’ve ever wondered what you should teach to a specific grade range, this is an excellent document to guide your decision-making.
7. 4 Proven Strategies for Teaching Empathy (Edutopia)
Edutopia has a series of four different strategies and behaviors that you can use in the classroom to help teach empathy.
These strategies include:
- Modeling: Being the role model of the classroom for empathy
- Point of view: Showing how different ideas look from different perspectives
- Literature: Illustrating point of view through well-known stories
- Listening: Following the HEAR steps to absorb what someone says
(For reference, the HEAR steps are Halt, Engage, Anticipate, and Replay.)
Altogether, this resource is less concerned with what you teach and more concerned with how you teach it.
The key is to be the role model for empathy in this scenario, empowering you to lead by example and give your students an aspiration for their own empathic behavior.
How Do You Teach Empathy?
With all of these resources at your fingertips, you’re now ready to teach a class on empathy!
Do you teach anything else in your empathy class(es)? Have you found any lesson plans or strategies that helped you develop an empathy curriculum?
Let me know in the comments!