SEL Tip: Practice empathy skills

Empathy isn’t just a quality – it’s a skill that can be learned. Here’s an activity to help students practice their empathy skills.

Empathy is a popular word these days. Politicians, talk show hosts, parents, and teachers all talk about how we need more of it. It is touted as part of the solution to social problems from online bullying to police brutality.

Empathy is often presented as a personal quality that some of us have and others don’t. But as practitioners of social and emotional learning, we believe that people – including our students – have the capacity to develop skills like empathy.

Social scientists suggest that there are three different types of empathy. Cognitive empathy is the ability to understand someone else’s situation and point of view. Emotional empathy is the ability to share in someone else’s emotion, or to feel what they are feeling as they are feeling it. Compassionate empathy is the ability to integrate cognitive and emotional empathy and take appropriate action to help someone change their situation and feel better.

Through this scaffolded pair share activity, you can help your students practice all three types of empathy!

Scaffolded Pair Share Activity

Have students sit face to face with a partner.
Let both partners know that they will share a time when they felt scared. Give them 30-60 seconds of quiet time to think about the story they want to share.
Ask each pair to decide on the first speaker and let them know they will have 1-2 minutes to share their story.  Prepare the listeners by reminding them to quiet their bodies, make eye contact, and pay attention to the details that their partner shares.
1.  Practice cognitive empathy
Ask speakers to share their story. When they are finished, ask the listeners to give their partners their responses to these questions:

  • How would you paraphrase (describe in your own words) the situation that your partner is dealing with in this story?
  • What details made this situation so scary?
  • What was the moment in the story when your partner felt most afraid?

Ask the speakers to reflect on their partner’s retelling of their story. Ask them to give their listening partner their responses to these questions:

  • Did your listener describe the situation accurately? If not, can you clarify their understanding?
  • Did your listener understand the details that made this situation so scary? If not, can you clarify their understanding?
  • Did your listener understand the moment that most frightened you? If not, can you clarify their understanding?

2. Practice emotional empathy
Confirm that all partnerships have clarified their understanding. Now ask the listeners these self-reflective questions to help them practice emotional empathy:

  • Have you ever felt as scared as the speaker was in their story?
  • How did your fear feel inside your own body at that that time?
  • Can you imagine how the speaker felt inside their body during their story?
  • Can you remember that same feeling and feel it now?

3.  Practice compassionate empathy
Lastly, ask these questions of the listeners to help them integrate cognitive and emotional empathy and practice compassionate empathy.

  • Now that you understand your partner’s point of view and can feel how they felt at the time, what might you have done at the time to make them feel better?
  • What could you do now to make them feel better?
  • Do it!

Switch roles and repeat!
Once students have completed the pair share, reconvene the class as a circle. In a go-round (using a talking piece, if you have one), invite students to respond to these questions:

  • What do you understand about your partner, and his or her life, that you didn’t understand before this activity?
  • What did you learn about yourself by doing this activity?
  • How can you practice empathy in your own life?