While the focus in school is often on literacy and STEM subjects, emotional intelligence is an important part of learning. However, often there isn’t time to focus solely on emotional intelligence when already on a tight schedule. Fortunately, leading by example is one aspect of teaching emotional intelligence, especially the concept of empathy. Teaching empathy to kids is a matter of creating a safe environment for children to express themselves and ask questions. In other words, both teachers and parents can teach empathy through example and daily activities.

What Is Empathy?

Empathy is the ability to understand the thoughts, feelings or experiences of others. It is an action that requires being aware of or being sensitive to other people’s emotions. There are two aspects of empathy: affective empathy and cognitive empathy (UC Berkeley). Affective empathy is when you feel what another person is feeling and mirror them. Cognitive empathy is understanding the emotions of others. In this article, we’ll focus on cognitive empathy.


Empathy is a key ingredient in relationship building. Studies have shown that it helps to reduce prejudices, leads to greater happiness, and even improves health (UC Berkeley).

Teaching Empathy To Kids Through Daily Tasks

teaching empathy to kids through daily tasks

Parents or guardians can teach empathy to kids when conducting daily tasks such as catching the bus or when you’re at the store. Pointing out body language and explaining how someone else might be feeling enables young people to begin identifying a world outside their own. It is also important to encourage children to ask questions. When they ask questions, you know they are internalizing your explanations and can start to think for themselves, rather than relying on external guidance.

Mistakes

Teaching empathy to elementary students requires that they are given the opportunity to make mistakes. Younger children learn better from mimicking behavior. Therefore, being patient and allowing them a chance to make errors enables them to adopt this kind of behavior in the future when they are supporting their friends. It will also help them when resolving conflicts of their own. They begin to build a picture that emotions aren’t about expectations and planning, but about reacting to life as in unfurls before them. This will enable them to build healthy relationships with those around them. Especially in cases where the other children and people they come into contact with are different from them.

Listening

It is also crucial that you teach kids empathy by encouraging them to listen. This is not just listening to your explanations, but listening to their own thoughts of feelings and that of others. In these conversations, they have the opportunity to understand differences and develop the ability to put themselves in other people’s shoes. Asking your children to think about their own thoughts and feelings is a starting point. Then they’ll need to apply that to how others may be thinking and feeling. A greater self-awareness develops a deeper understanding of emotions more generally.

How To Teach Empathy To A Teenager

how to teach empathy to a teenager

Teenagers are different from younger children as they stop mimicking behavior they learn from their teachers and parents or guardians. Instead, they begin to find their own way. Often these choices can seem like an act of rebellion. However, this is just a matter of trying to figure out the world in their own way. It is vital that you continue to allow teenagers to make mistakes as you would any young person, and that you continue to lead by example. As a role model, you can recall times you have also made mistakes and teach them empathy by practicing it yourself. 

At times, you may need to call out behaviors that are inappropriate; more so with teenagers than you would with younger children. However, this should not come as punishment. Instead, you must check and balance their reactions with your own response.  Contextualize the situation and create space for them to express themselves freely. By listening and responding accordingly, you are demonstrating empathy in your own actions. So, it is therefore reasonable that you ask them to do the same. This helps them to develop their conflict resolution skills as you aren’t shying away from more difficult conversations. At home or in school, they can practice empathy in a safe environment. Then they can apply this to situations they face in the real world.

Activities To Teach Empathy

There are many ways to actively teach empathy that supplement day-to-day interactions. Empathy activities for kids include stories, role-playing, and even creative writing or art. Here are a few:

Read. According to research, children who read fiction are more likely to understand other people’s emotions and intentions.

Study facial expressions. Children can learn to identify other people’s emotions by studying facial expressions. You can find a variety of worksheets and games online to help children better identify expressions and emotions.

Play games. When children compete in games they are creating a mental model of other people’s intentions and thoughts.

Play music in a group. A recent study showed that playing music together, such as in a band, increases empathy.

Sports. Sports and team activities provide children with knowledge of how others behave and why they behave in the ways they do in conversation with their own. In these instances, it is important to emphasize teamwork and sportsmanship above competition and winning.

Active Imagining. Activities where children are actively imagining situations involving others is another great way to boost empathy.

Check out Soul Shoppe’s Pinterest board for activities on emotional intelligence and empathy. Experience the emotional intelligence online course for children in 4th and 5th grade.

Soul Shoppe creates cultures of compassion, connection and curiosity. We teach social emotional development to children, teachers and professionals across the U.S. 

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