What’s one of the first words that come to mind when you think of empathy? It’s a strong word, even at first glance, right? Even if you don’t have a complete understanding of the word, you’ve probably heard a similar iteration of it, like the word ‘sympathy’. And of course, both words have similar concepts, since they both have to do with how we treat others.
Nonetheless, to clarify the difference, sympathy is feeling bad when you know the facts of someone else’s suffering. While empathy includes a sense of understanding for the suffering of someone else, because you can imagine it by putting yourself in their shoes.
A rather powerful quote that comes to mind states it best, “Empathy is the ability to step outside of your own bubble and into the bubbles of other people.” C. Joybell
Why Empathy Matters in Middle School and High School
We consider how we treat others when we see ourselves in them, particularly when it's loved ones or friends. Middle and high school students need to learn that sense of emotional intelligence, sooner rather than later.
Research shows that adolescence is a key stage of development for the growth of empathy. So, what time better than now, to really zone in on its importance with our young teens, not only explaining ‘empathy’, but also giving a good step-by-step on what building it for middle school and high school looks like.
As educators, you spend more time with children in the classrooms than they may even spend with loved ones or parents. The impact you make on your students is infinite.
Benefits of Teaching Empathy to Middle School and High School Students
Empathy is a skill that develops over time, and it has major consequences for teens’ social interactions, friendships, and adult relationships.
Although it doesn’t necessarily take a lot of work to build empathy, it does take attention and commitment — and it’s worth it for students, educators, and our educational community. Studies show that when students have empathy, they display:
More classroom engagement
Higher academic achievement
Better communication skills
Lower likelihood of bullying
Less aggressive behaviors and emotional disorders
More positive relationships
How to Start Teaching Empathy in Your Classrooms with This Activity
Now at a time when most of our middle and high schoolers are spending most of their time behind computer screens and mobile devices, the thought of them being empathetic to another student’s feelings is few and far between. It’s pretty much not a necessity as it used to be a few decades ago. But it’s something that’s necessary for our teens to really understand and connect with their friends on a deeper level.
I don’t know about you, but I know I was always that kid in class, where an engaging activity that allowed me to express myself, really hit home for me when it came to teaching major life lessons or principles.
Study.com has countless activities on its website, that really allow middle school and high school students to learn from one another as peers. We found one and made a few modifications to it to take an easy, but detailed, deep-dive into teaching empathy to students.
Instructions for the Empathy Exercise for Middle School and High School Students:
1. Divide your class into small groups (4-5 per group).
2. Hand out up to six cards to each student.
3. Read out a scenario card, such as:
I went to the store to get my favorite treat, but they were out.
My best friend posted a picture from a party when he/she was supposed to be with me.
I saw a nasty comment about me on a friend's social media account.
I posted a cool picture of myself at an event, but no one liked it.
4. Ask your students to think about how they would feel in that scenario.
5. Give your students a few minutes to write a brief response to the scenario, such as:
I was disappointed, but I just got something different instead.
So, I got mad and left the store.
It didn't really bother me. I just went to a different store.
6. Student responses must:
Be brief - 1 or 2 sentences.
Include an emotional response word.
Include an action response.
7. Remind your students to write their response in secret.
8. When everyone is finished with their responses, all students should put their cards face down in the middle of the group
9. One student should gather the cards and shuffle them.
10. Then, that student should read each card one at a time.
All students in the group should try to decide who wrote each response.
11. After all the cards have been identified, encourage the groups to discuss their differing reactions to the scenario before continuing with the next scenario.
Expanding the Empathy Learning Experience Further by Applying Real-Life Social Issues and Causes
After the activity that serves as a basic introduction to empathy, smart and caring teachers like you can expand the lesson to apply to real-world situations that many middle school and high school students may already be familiar with from the news or social media online.
Our collection of empathy podcasts are designed to help you start the conversation about these topics, help students understand what other young people their age are going through, and assist in brainstorming ideas for students to take action.
Some of our most popular episodes that teach empathy are on:
We’ve also created an entirely new format of empathy media through our video interviews, starting with our new episode on Transgender Identity!
These empathy podcasts vary and can be sorted by learning level, and new episodes are always getting released. You and your class can take them further by creating Action Projects that create solutions after signing up for our teacher platform and accessing the online toolkit offered in each of our empathy podcasts!
We understand that currently, most teachers are not physically in the classroom, but these are practices that can be done no matter where you are. And now, more than ever, learning to show empathy is important. In the grips of a global crisis, helping students learn empathy will help them fight loneliness and anxiety. And students especially need to feel understood and cared about during this time.
With a little time and commitment scheduled to focus on empathy in your classroom using our resources on our teacher-friendly platform, your students will come out better and stronger.
No, it’s not something that happens overnight; it takes time and consistency. What’s important is that you work on them slowly and watch the skills grow. Quite often, these strategies can be integrated into the classroom to help support a positive learning community for all.
As teachers, you have the upper hand and ability to make that move towards creating more empathic and emotional intelligent students who grow up to become thriving adults—your work starts now and makes a difference of a lifetime!