Empathy Stretching: It’s all about helping our children experience switching places and seeing and feeling from another side

Empathy is that glorious ability to understand and feel for another person’s concerns. It’s the powerful emotion that halts violent and cruel behaviors and urges us to treat others kindly and fairly.

Because empathy emerges quite early, our children are born with a huge built-in advantage for their moral growth. But whether our kids will develop this marvelous capacity to feel for others is far from guaranteed.

Although children are born with the capacity for empathy, it must be properly nurtured, or it will remain dormant. And therein lies the crisis: over the past years, many factors that research has found to be critical to the enhancement of empathy are disappearing, replaced by more negative ones.

Sadly, parents are not as intentional about elevating empathy in their child-rearing efforts. Academic achievement seems to be at the top of our radars these days. That’s why I’m passionate about nurturing empathy and why I get so energized when teachers share ways to weave social-emotinonal learning into their curriculums. Barbara Gruener is one of those teachers-and she’s a marvel to our profession. Barbara is a gifted school counselor and character coach at a National School of Character in Friendswood, Texas.

(This week I’ll be speaking in Washington DC at the National Character Education conference where I hope to reconnect with this wonderful counselor as well as hundreds of other educators from the US and across the world as we all join together and find solutions to stop bullying, peer cruelty, boost social emotional learning, and nurture our children’s hearts and minds. I hope to see many of you there).

Here’s the post from Barbara, a fabulous teacher at a National School of Character School, and one strategy she uses to nurture empathy.  There are dozens of possibilities – the key is to look for those intentional moments to weave empathy stretching into your classroom day. Thanks Barbara! I’m proud to know you! 🙂

Guest Post by Barbara Gruener: “Elevating Empathy”

Empathy. It’s all that I’ve been able to think about since I heard parenting expert Dr. Michele Borba talk about this all-important virtue at a Character Education Conference three years ago. Empathy. It’s the virtue that allows us to identify with and understand another’s situation, feelings, and motives. Empathy. What if it really is the key to solving the bullying epidemic? What if it really is the most important thing a student brings to a class family? What if it really is simply that powerful?

So since then, I’ve been working with my students to recognize and understand what empathy is; how it looks, how it sounds, and how it feels and how it works.

Our first step in elevating empathy is teaching children about feelings. They won’t be able to understand another’s feelings if they don’t recognize, understand, and manage their own in healthy ways. I’ve done a lot of empathy work with my students by simply asking, “What was that experience like for you?” and “How did that feel?” I’ve turned my ceiling tiles into feeling tiles by drawing emoticons on them. Students will point to the tiles that they think best matches their feeling. I’m careful to remind them that we may not always choose our feelings, but we get to choose how we react to them. Every time.

Once they understand their feelings, it’s easier to experience empathy for one another. I use a lot of literature in my peace classes and encourage text-to-self connections by stopping periodically through stories to ask:

“What’s going on with that character?” and “What would it feel like to be him?” “And what does he need?”

A great example of a page that I’ve used to elevate empathy is this one from The Potato Chip Champ by Maria Dismondy.

Then, it’s time to let the students practice putting themselves in one another’s shoes.

~ Share your stories with them.

~ Point out how people are feeling.

~ Ask them to imagine how someone will feel in a certain situation.

~ Encourage them to predict how a character will feel in a show they’re watching or a book they’re reading.

~ Then, have them switch places with someone to actually experience their feelings.

Try this little illustration to help them understand what it means to switch places. Using both hands, put your thumb up on one, and your pinky up on the other.



Then have the pinky and the thumb switch places.


Then continue to switch. It’s harder to do than you might think, but guess what? So is experiencing empathy. It takes practice. It’s hard work sometimes, but in the end, it’s worth it.

Here’s a little poem for the kids to recite while they’re mastering the switch.









For more ideas, visit the Elevating Empathy Pinterest page, the Start Empathy website, and this Empathy In A (Shoe) Box lesson.

About the Author: Barbara Gruener is a school counselor and character coach at a National School of Character in Friendswood, Texas. When she’s not working with tomorrow’s leaders, she enjoys reading, writing, baking, knitting and spending time with her family. Barbara is the author of The Corner On Character blog.