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Building Social and Emotional Skills in Elementary Students: Empathy

Randy Taran of Project Happiness highlights five steps to activate empathy and discusses schools that are focusing on empathy now.

By Randy Taran

Randy Taran is the founder of Project Happiness, a non-profit that specializes in emotional resilience-building programs that are used by people of all ages and endorsed by public schools, private institutions and universities around the U.S. and the world. Randy is also co-author of the Project Happiness Handbook, an interactive journey that illustrates best practices in promoting social and emotional learning. Randy is passionate about the inner life of young people. To address the issues of rising stress among youth, Randy produced Project Happiness, an award-winning documentary where students from three continents ask the question “What is lasting happiness?” Along the way, they talk with George Lucas, Richard Gere, neuroscientist Dr. Richard Davidson and come together in India for a private audience with the Dalai Lama. An experiential-learning curriculum grew from the film and book, integrating current research in positive psychology, neuroscience and mindfulness. These programs are currently used in classrooms and youth programs in all 50 states and over 75 countries. Randy speaks regularly on various happiness and youth-related issues, and is a regular contributor to the Huffington Post and Edutopia. She is a Yoga Alliance certified teacher and holds her MBA in International Business and Marketing from New York University. Randy serves on the Board of the Dalai Lama Foundation, and is lives with her family near Palo Alto, California.

August 8, 2013

Editor's Note: This article originally appeared on

Why is it important to “Walk in someone else’s shoes?” According to a study by the Brookings Institution, “Higher curriculum standards don’t correlate to higher student achievement; empathy does.” Empathy is also gaining attention as an important component of emotional intelligence and as a way to reduce bullying. When a person learns to understand and share the feelings of another, the pro-social behavior that results shows up in better relationships, in closer friendships, and stronger communities – it is that important! Here are five steps to cultivate empathy: 

Step 1 – Watch & Listen: What is the other person saying and what is his or her body language?
Step 2 – Remember: When did you feel the same way?
Step 3 – Imagine: How the other person feels and how you would feel in that situation.
Step 4 – Ask: Ask what the person is feeling.
Step 5 - Show You Care: Let them know that you care through your words and actions.

How is Empathy being developed in schools?

There are many approaches to teaching empathy. Here are 10 interesting ways that aspects of empathy are being introduced:

1. Start with Teachers: At a recent EduCon Conference, an important issue came up. Teacher burnout increases when teachers are expected to be supportive, but receive no emotional support at all. One teacher summarized it well: “How can I have empathy for my students when no one will have empathy for me?” The solution one school adopted was to have regular staff meetings, in which everyone sat in a circle and shared how things were going. Teachers felt closer to one another in creating a more supportive environment where others cared about how everyone was feeling.

2. Infants as Educators: Roots of Empathy is a program that brings a neighborhood infant and parent to visit the classroom every three weeks over the school year. Students are taught to observe the baby’s development and discuss the babies’ feelings, which opens the door to students identifying their own feelings and those of others, thus building empathy and decreasing aggression and bullying.

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3. Validation and Trust: Making sure students have a voice and that all voices are heard is a building block for empathy. Kathy Clunis D'Andrea of Mission Hill School in Boston states: “The students learn that I trust them to be kind, loving, and intelligent.  And they are learning to trust that I will think of them that way. We learn to trust each other … help each other if we fall… and use our voices to make change.  When children first start to use their voices in the classroom, it provides for a test as to how they may be received. Will they be listened to? Will they be laughed at? Are they important?”

4. Power of Teamwork: Working in teams to affect the greater good, is a great way to creating a culture of empathy. At AXL Academy, each child is assigned to a “crew” for two years. Inspired by Outward Bound founder Kurt Hahn’s quote, “We are not passengers in life, we are crew,” students learn to work together and create close bonds with one another and their teacher.

5. Grading on character: The school also grades students on character, with big questions like, “What makes a good friend?” broken down into learning outcomes, and performance targets, which teachers and students use to collaboratively evaluate students’ progress. 

6. Practice Emotional Literacy:  Having students learn what feelings are (including reading people’s faces and body language) as well as how to name those feelings are necessary steps to empathy. If they can learn how to express their feelings and how to interpret when others express feelings, they have important tools for life. 

7. Befriending the “Other”: To teach empathy, one school is helping students learn to initiate relationships by becoming friends with students who are different, have a disability, or are new. The motivation is friendship and better relationships.

8. Students as “Changemakers”: When teachers guided students to identify school problems and encouraged them to work together to come up with solutions, this caused a shift in the school culture. At one school, the oldest grade decided to create reminders for the younger grades about how to treat each other well. Because of the project, the older students began to see themselves as role models and empathic leaders for the younger kids.

9. Service-Learning: At Georgetown Elementary Day School, students do grade-wide service-learning projects. In pre-school and first grade, for example, students make sandwiches for a local nonprofit’s family support programs. By the fifth grade, students can choose their own service project, culminating in four days of service and advocacy.

10. Encourage Empathy at Home: Empathy is reinforced at home when parents model it. When parents positively demonstrate sharing their feelings in authentic, engaged, and non-judgmental ways, kids (influenced by mirror neurons) tend to imitate or mirror the intention and emotional state of what they see. Empathy is a family affair!

Do you see this as an important issue? What ways have you cultivated empathy in your classroom?

This is part seven of a nine-part series from the Project Happiness curriculum. We are looking at important factors that influence the happiness and social and emotional learning of elementary school age children, helping students learn life skills, manage emotions, and increase empathy. Each blog features one letter of the acronym HAPPINESS and has been designed to teach an important component of long-term well-being:

H = Happiness

A = Appreciation

P = Passions and Strengths

P = Perspective

I = Inner Meanie, Inner Friend

N = Ninja Mastery

E = Empathy

S = So Similar

S = Share Your Gifts

Next blog will introduce the lesson plan on empathy, which can also be adapted for use by families. Why focus on the intersection between empathy and happiness? Empathy is a cornerstone of both individual and societal happiness. If students can learn this skill now, they will have an advantage for life.