Teaching Empathy at Home and School. Can Schools Teach Empathy?

Last week a parent asked,  “Can schools teach empathy?” Here’s my answer.

Empathy isn’t taught. The human brain is wired for empathy (mirror neurons). Adults shape an environment; that environment shapes the child’s empathy. So schools can’t not educate a child’s empathy. If they don’t do it well, they do it poorly.

Since we want young people to graduate from school with their social-emotional intelligence trained for success in their personal and professional lives, designing culture for the graceful expression of empathy is one of the chief responsibilities of all educators: school principals, teachers, and, yes, parents in their homes.

A great first and second grade teacher named Kathy would tell the class at the beginning of the year, “Here, we have one rule: Be Kind.” Her classroom was magical. Having only “one rule” didn’t keep her from holding the line on other things like homework or cleaning up. The kids got it, and no one argued. Of course, they all wanted to work and play in an environment where everyone is kind. Saying there is “one rule” gave her leadership a name and her classroom culture a focal concept around which everyone could build something beautiful.

Even before they get to kindergarten, children have a great deal of experience seeking that point of mutuality between their self-interest and the interests of others. Of course! They want to have friends! In shaping empathy it’s best to start from the assumption that kids already have it, and then lead them to more effective expressions of it. Better to say, “Let me show you how to get what  you want and build friendships at the same time” than to feel: “They are selfish; I am moral; I will teach them to share.”

The Highest and Best Use of a Cookie

One year, the fourth grade teachers decided to use their study of illegal immigration to get at the social problems in the class. In order to give the students a more personal understanding of some of the issues involved in immigration, three children were identified as ‘illegal immigrants’ for the day. All the other students were either ‘citizens’ or ‘lawful permanent residents.’ Throughout the morning the illegal immigrants, chosen at random, had to do extra jobs and missed out on fun things like recess.

At snack time, the teachers gave out cookies to everyone except the illegal immigrants. Most of the other kids noticed that this was cruel, but they accepted the rules of the game and ate their cookies anyway.

But Aisha very quietly snuck up to the illegal immigrants and whispered to them that she wanted to share her cookie, even if this meant she would be ‘sent to jail.’ She took them into the cloakroom and gave them her cookie to share.

All the kids felt bad for their classmates; Aisha did something about it. She was being smart about what she wanted; she judged the benefits of being kind—friendship, happy community, the thrill of giving—far outweighed the loss of the cookie.

The Big Payoff

When the teachers told me the story, I wrote “The Highest and Best Use of a Cookie” and sent it home with the students on Thursday. On Friday after school, I was on the street outside of the school as a group of fourth graders in their soccer uniforms were leaving school with their parents for soccer practice. They were eating their snacks as they walked. As they passed me, they greeted me with their usual “Hi, Mr. Rick,” but three of them offered me a cookie.

You don’t have to be a cynic to wonder if bringing up children in an empathetic culture like Kathy’s prepares them badly for a competitive, dog-eat-dog world, but my experience would suggest otherwise. Anecdotal data from hundreds of young people convinces me that 14-year-olds go off to high school stronger and ready for anything, if they have learned in grade school how to be skillful in their relationships.

Ultimately, our behavior reflects our culture. If the myth of home, school and society is that life is a race to the top of some pyramid, we get different results than if our myth is that the world needs each of us to find and discover our genius, and that our genius is not at all oblivious to the needs of others, but on the contrary, passionate about them.

Don’t try to “teach” empathy. Use empathy to create an environment where kids can learn how to practice the law of mutuality: It can’t really be good for me, unless it is also good for others.


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12 thoughts on “Teaching Empathy at Home and School. Can Schools Teach Empathy?

  1. Dear Rick

    Keep up the good work on exploring and promoting the importance of empathy.

    May I suggest a further resource to learn more about empathy and compassion.
    The Center for Building a Culture of Empathy
    The Culture of Empathy website is the largest internet portal for resources and information about the values of empathy and compassion. It contains articles, conferences, definitions, experts, history, interviews,  videos, science and much more about empathy and compassion.

    Also, I invite you to post a link to your article about empathy to our Empathy Center Facebook page.

    I posted a link to your article in our
    Empathy and Compassion Magazine
    The latest news about empathy and compassion from around the world

  2. Nice! And just in time for back to school 🙂
    I like the simplicity of “be kind.”
    & mutuality as principle.. And “listening” as mentioned above…. All helpful. Thx

  3. Schools can’t teach empathy, since schools themselves are not empathic, but a lot of people in schools who are empathic can model empathy and research suggests that empathy, in fact, can be taught. Like a lot of learned skills, such as the piano, it takes a terrific teacher and lots of practice. And, if our brains are wired for it, then we would do well to insert that particular wire to the right plug and make sure the connection is secure!

  4. Thank you for this posting. As a trained Montessori directress, I have had the opportunity to work with children ages 2 1/2 – 6 1/2 in the classroom. Over the years I sometimes heard other teachers talk about children in their classes experiencing conflict. I did not have this experience with my children. They socialized and worked together harmoniously. While I agree that empathy isn’t something that you teach, opportunities to experience and model empathy (whether as an adult or child) come up in the classroom everyday. The Montessori method allowed for many additional opportunities to model peace, caring and mutual understanding.

    In case you haven’t heard of it, here is some information about the Roots of Empathy programme that exists here in British Columbia.

    (Two pages from my own website.)


  5. It´s amazing how graceful one can change an approach. From: I am moral I gonna teach them… to how can I inspire a new myth? Thank you for sharing this.

  6. Using drama as a way of learning and teaching in schools will help develop empathy. It helps children to actively imagine they are someone else. I explore this in my book, “With Drama in Mind – real learning in imagined worlds’

    Patrice Baldwin
    Chair of National Drama (UK)
    President of the International Drama Theatre and Education Association

  7. After posting earlier I had to go search for the proof of how children show empathy – just most children do not have the tools of communication as young as 2yo to display it well – studies have shown that signing babies will acquire greater empathy skills (most everything is communication based if you think about it). Anyway a little video of my son feeling empathy while on the carosuel ride. http://youtu.be/3xXm-BABmX4

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