In Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch teaches his
daughter, Scout, empathy. After a series of baffling conflicts with people from
all walks of life leaves her unsettled and angry, Atticus firmly but lovingly
calls on Scout to try to see the world from other people’s points of view:
“First of all,” he said, “if you can learn a simple 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 into his skin and walk around in it.”

Development and

This is well-tempered, timeless advice. But for middle school
teachers, increasing students’ capacity for empathy is complicated by the fact
that most young adolescents experience an extended “inward” period of
development, in which individual identity is an important-at times,
paramount-focus. Often lost in the storm of adolescent social-emotional growth,
students don’t think much about how others feel. How can we help our middle
schoolers navigate through this self-centered storm toward a more empathic way
of being? Here are some practical ideas to try.


Notice empathetic behavior when it happens. Too often,
we notice and respond to rule-breaking behavior but forget to acknowledge the
good things that happen. Be on the lookout for empathetic behavior, and honor it
in a public way when you see it. For example, when Shelly’s pen runs out of ink
and Larry lends her one of his, mention it: “Larry, you loaned Shelly a pen, so
we’ll all be able to continue our writing assignment. Thanks!” Or, you could
bring your school’s group agreements (Social Contract) into the equation: “One
of the rules in our Social Contract says, support others. Thanks for honoring
our agreements, Larry.”

Acknowledgments ideas for closing

Popcorn: anyone calls out an acknowledgment to anyone else,
without raising hands or taking turns. This version takes away some of the
embarrassment in giving and receiving an acknowledgment by de-emphasizing each
particular compliment. It generates a general feeling of well-being in the

Written acknowledgments: students describe in writing times when
they saw other students acting with empathy.

Acts of kindness: students
acknowledge each other for actions of empathy they witnessed that day. For
example, “Davon was empathetic when he picked up my binder for me after I
dropped it.”

2. The Talk Show Game
Materials: None
How to
play: Group students in pairs.

In each pair, one plays the role of a
talk-show host. The other plays the role of the guest on the show. Present each
pair with a scenario that involves empathy or lack of empathy. The goal is for
the host to elicit an empathetic response by drawing ideas from the guest about
some of the experiences, feelings, and attitudes associated with that scenario.
The host interviews the guest for one to two minutes, and then the leader gives
a 30-second warning. After the time expires, call for a break, and invite
players to stop, switch roles, and take up a new scenario. The process is
repeated: the new roles and topic are used within a one- to two-minute time
frame. After both students in each pair have played both roles, give the
students a few minutes to reflect with each other about the exercise.

Possible scenarios for pairs:

  • A student does not do well on a test.
  • A girl who heard some gossip appears upset.
  • A rumor about you is spreading around the school.
  • You were in a fight with your best friend at lunch today.
  • You liked your new shoes when you put them on this morning, but somebody
    made fun of them.
  • You thought you would make the basketball team, but you got

Plan for Success: It is the guest who is practicing empathy
by imagining himself or herself in the specific situation and trying to identify
what it would feel like. The host should not give advice, but should try to ask
questions that assist the guest in getting in touch with what it might be like
to be involved in the given scenario. Hosts can ask questions which probe the
details of a feeling.

Because this is a challenging line of questioning,
in the beginning interviews will likely be short, composed of perhaps 4 or 5
questions. As students’ skills grow, extend the questioning

Encourage the hosts not to use “why” questions during the
interview process. Often when we ask others to explain why they feel a certain
way, we are asking them to rationalize a non-rational experience. This can be
confusing and may not forward the empathic experience.

Provide specific
scenarios, not abstract generalizations. Before playing, model the game with a
student, and ask the rest of the class to watch and listen carefully. Play the
role of the host, and model asking questions that clarify what the scenario is
and lead the guest to his or her own understanding of what someone might feel in
this situation.

Interview example
Scenario: a student does not
do well on a test.
Host: How do you feel about your grade on the
Guest: I am disappointed and mad at myself.
Host: What grade did you
hope to receive?
Guest: At least a C.
Host: How does it feel when you’re
mad? What happens inside you?
Guest: I get tense and crabby. Right now, I
can’t think about anything but that test.
Host: Have you felt this way
Guest: Yes-every time I get a bad grade.
Host: What do you say to
yourself or think about yourself?

3. Empathic Language
language of empathy moves away from making judgments and toward describing
things accurately. Here is another exercise in which students take on roles and
respond from different viewpoints to given social scenarios.

Tell the
students that you will leave the classroom and then come back. Their job is to
closely observe your behavior. Leave, then walk back into the classroom and make
several mistakes in the process: talk loudly, eat some food without permission,
take somebody’s pencil without asking, etc. Tell students to write down on a
notecard what they noticed. Collect the cards, and read them aloud. As students
listen, ask them to signal one way when they hear descriptive language, and
another way when they hear judgmental language. Follow this by providing a quick
definition: empathetic language is descriptive, not judgmental.

steps of empathetic language

Teach students the following sequence of
descriptive, non-judgmental (empathetic) language:

  1. I saw . . . (describe what happened)
  2. I felt . . .(describe how you felt when you saw what you saw)
  3. I need . . . (describe what you need/would like)
  4. I request . . .(make a request for the future)

Example of using
the four steps

Exclusion-a student is left out of a party

  1. “You didn’t invite me to your party.” (statement is a description, not a
  2. “I felt upset. I thought we were friends.”
  3. “I need to know if you’re mad at me.”
  4. “Next time, will you let me know when you’re mad?”

The fourth step
is especially challenging because it requires students to identify and express a
need through a specific request. Initially, teachers may decide to leave it out.
On the other hand, it models ideal behavior, even though it may seem unlikely
that students will be able to achieve that level of civility at this time.
(These ideas come from Marshall Rosenberg. See this website for more
More About Empathy

Use drama scenarios to
practice the language of empathy in social situations students are likely to
encounter. Describe the situation (do not act out the negative behaviors) and
then have students try it using the four steps of empathetic language in
response to the situation (this is the part to act out). You can use the
following ideas or provide your own examples, and then ask students to
brainstorm a list of scenarios.

  • One student is left out of a soccer game at recess.
  • Two girls are gossiping about a third girl as she unexpectedly passes,
    overhearing them.
  • A student is repeatedly asked to share his homework with friends, even
    though the work is supposed to be done independently.
  • A student is being pressured to join a gang.
  • A boy with poor social skills tends to ostracize himself from the group with
    awkward, annoying, or slightly antisocial behavior. The group wants to help, but
    isn’t sure how.

4. Games that Teach Empathy
These games may
be played during an advisory/homeroom CPR meeting or throughout the day: Helium
; Knots;

5. Simple musical performances
Musician, author, and
professor Daniel Levitin believes that performing music together is one of the
best ways to build people’s capacity for empathy. The act itself demands caring
relations among the players as well as other empathetic behaviors, such as
listening to others, taking turns in the spotlight, playing a supportive role,
paying attention to dynamics, and being prepared. Even if your classroom isn’t
filled with students receiving formal musical training, casual musical
performances can easily be orchestrated in any middle school classroom. Consider
the following possibilities.

  • Rhythmic call-and-response exercises can be done in advisory/homeroom
    meetings or as energizers or closing activities throughout the day. In a circle,
    let each student do what she can within four beats; the audience repeats each
    person’s rhythm back to her before the next student shares his.
  • Rhythms can be added, one at a time (each student repeating his four beat
    phrase, again and again), creating layers of rhythmic complexity. Start by
    having one student lay down a simple, even, four-beat phrase, either vocally or
    by snapping fingers, or clapping, or a combination. The second student adds hers
    as the first student begins a new 4-beat phrase, and so on, until each student
    is contributing to the sound. When each student starts, he/she must continue
    his/her phrase, supporting those who follow, and must not change until everyone
    has joined in.
  • Singing rounds is a great way to build empathy through music. Start with
    simple songs everyone knows. Be sure to lead the group by cueing each section,
    and by keeping the tempo for the group (don’t appoint more than one tempo
    guide–a train wreck is sure to ensue!)

6. Sharing in the Circle of
Power and Respect

Sharing during advisory/homeroom CPR can be a great
time to build empathy. Try whip shares, where each person in the circle gives a
one-word response to a question. Afterwards, invite students to ask follow-up
questions. With the right topic, the empathy in your room will be palpable!

Examples of whip-share topics that can build empathy:
A pet
you’ve known has passed away
A painful trip to the dentist’s or
orthodontist’s office
A time you were ill or hurt
An experience with baby
siblings or other baby relatives
An experience with puppies, kittens, and
other baby animals
A time when you felt left out
An embarrassing
Getting cut from a team
Losing an election
Examples of follow-up
questions about a time when you were sick or hurt: “Monroe, how did you get help
after you fell?” “Dede, how long were you out of school, and what did you do
during that time?”

7. Buddy classes
Create and maintain a
relationship with another class (preferably younger students). There are many
activities you can use that facilitate empathetic behavior:
Play board games
Do a combined class meetings
Older students
plan a party for the younger students
Do a service project together
Do an
art project together
Study vocabulary words together

8. Young
People’s Books

Read and discuss books with explicit themes of empathy,
such as:
Other Side
by Jacqueline Woodson
by Eve Bunting
Jed’s Barbershop
by Margaree King-Mitchell
by Enrique Sanchez
Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul by
Jack Canfield and Mark Victor Hansen
Stellaluna by Jannell

Weave these ways of building empathy into the class period on any
day, in any week. Some become classroom routines, such as acknowledgments.
Others are special activities that work well in advisory, such as practicing
empathetic language or playing a game. The idea is to consistently infuse your
time with students with opportunities to think about others from a fresh,
sympathetic point of view.

The payoff
The payoff for teaching
empathy is the creation of school communities strengthened by trust and free
from constant strife-the kind of social-emotional climate that translates into
higher academic performance for everyone.

Scott Tyink is a
Developmental Designs consultant.

Published January 2008


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