Teaching Empathy

Empathy is an innate human characteristic, and in my opinion one of the most important characteristics we have. Some studies suggest that humans aren’t alone in their ability to empathize with other beings and that animals experience empathy as well. Stories abound about how animals take care of other animals outside of their species. I mean, look at this dog mom taking care of orphaned kittens. Ugh…slayed.


I know I’m not the only one whose feeling pangs of heartwarming joy from seeing that picture. It’s cute because it reminds us of kindness and we are filled with hope that if animals do it, we will continue to experience it as humans too. We empathize with the picture. We as humans aren’t alone in our ability to understand or share the feelings of another being, and it must therefore serve as a survival mechanism. If it’s a survival mechanism it’s important and necessary for survival. That’s pretty simple logic, am I right?

While empathy is innate, it can be boosted through experiences and direct teaching. Sometimes children, depending on their stage of development lack what adults understand as empathy. It’s important to note that a three-year-old child who can’t understand the world outside of their worldview isn’t being a jerk, they’re just being a normal three-year-old. But school age children are certainly able to bolster their ability to empathize with their friends, classmates, and family members. It can be taught through modeling, group work and activites, books, listening, peer mentorship, discussions, and directly teaching point of view among many other ways.

Below are some fun activities I’ve used with children to work on empathy and have fun while doing it!

Mirror Mirror: Teaching children to connect to themselves with loving kindness can help them connect to others in the same way.

mirror mirror

Kindess Postcards: This is a fun way to work in letter writing techniques with teaching empathy and kindness.

kindess postcards

Friendship Rainbows: A colorful activity to show teach students how to compliment others and build empathy towards friends and classmates.


Empathy Game: a great way to practice looking at someone else’s point of view.

empathy game

Feeling Chart: This isn’t really an activity on it’s own but it can be really helpful. Often, children don’t have the vocabulary or conscience knowledge of their feelings so something like a feelings chart can be a helpful way to identify feelings. You can use the chart as a starting point for charades, emotions sorting games (for younger children) etc…





Growth Mindset

A related concept to grit is “Growth Mindset”. The Growth Mindset philosophy has enjoyed a huge uptick in the education world and is utilized in many classrooms and schools. Growth Mindset is based on the work of Carol Dweck, a psychologist and motivation researcher out of Stanford University. Here’s a little bit about Growth Mindset:

  • Growth Mindset vs. Fixed Mindset.
    • A student who believes that intelligence is derived from effort and interest has a growth mindset. Someone who loves a challenge or feels that abilities can be developed has a growth mindset.
    • A student who has a fixed mindset believes we are inherently “good” or “bad” at certain subjects, and that this isn’t something we can really change. Have you ever hear a parent say “Oh he struggles with math. I was always really bad at math too so he comes by it naturally.” I have! It’s not an uncommon representation of fixed mindset at work.
    • For obvious reasons learners who possess Growth Mindset often enjoy more success and less anxiety around learning opportunities. They engage deeply in new challenges and show curiosity in the unknown.
    • People can go back and forth between these mindsets, and mindsets can be taught.

I love the idea of growth mindset because it opens the world up to learners! It can create grit, and resilience and it certainly rewards hard work/effort. Check out the resources below if you want to learn more.


Education Week Article

The joy of learning. Together. 



People of Great Kindness

Let’s take a moment to celebrate people of great kindness. We all know people of great kindness. They are our our parents, aunts or uncles, sisters and brothers, friends and neighbors. They are our teachers, our leaders, and our mentors. I am so grateful for the multitude of people in my life who have taught me to be kind. Who is someone who showed you great kindness?

You don’t have to be well-known to have a huge impact on others but here is a list (in no particular order) of some of my favorite famous people of great kindness and strength. Who would you add to this list?

The joy of learning. Together. 


Martin Luther King Junior 


The Dalai Lama


Mohandas Gandhi


Mother Teresa

mother teresa

Nelson Mandela


Maya Angelou


Malala Yousafzai


Teaching Kindness

Ready for some good news? Kindness can be taught. It’s taught through modeling and discussion, and there are a lot of great recourses that concretely teach kindness. Every school I’ve visited has a school wide program aimed at teaching kindness and empathy towards others. In order for a program to work though it must be consistently taught throughout the school day and at home.

There are a lot of quick resources for kindness activities. For example Discovery Education has some good ideas on how to implement a program with a monthly theme and easy activities. Kindness curriculums don’t need to take up the school day, teachers barely have time as it is to get through the standards and lessons they planned. Quick mini lessons sprinkled throughout the week can be just as effective.

Team building activities, “clubs”, and service projects are other fun ways to get kids involved in kindness. For example, One year some of my third grade girls were having trouble getting along so I formed a lunch club and we worked on projects and games together. It was a great way to get to know my students better, and to help them get through a rough patch. Hosting clothing or food drives is another simple way to build empathy both at home and at school. Volunteer at local food pantries, hospitals, shelters, or other service organizations in your neighborhood. Build kindness and service into your daily life.

I know it may sound like I’m simplifying something that isn’t that simple. Teaching kindness is a team effort. It’s not a school’s or a teacher’s sole responsibility to teach kindness. Communities, neighborhoods, schools, parents, and families need to work in tandem. And lest I be called a Pollyanna, it’s important to note that sometimes there is a lot going against teaching kindness. Just do what you can do, where you are, with what you have. That’s all any of us can do.


I volunteer at The Hope Center for Children. Check them out if you’re looking for a service opportunity in Spartanburg.

The joy of learning. Together.



Vulnerability and Kindess

helping hand

One can certainly be kind without being vulnerable, but often an act of vulnerability with other person is a great kindness. This doesn’t mean you need to run out and share your deepest fears and sadness with relative strangers in the name of kindness. In fact, please don’t do that, you’ll get some appropriately alarmed reactions. But, if someone you care about shares their fears with you, be honored that they chose you to share with, and respond with empathy and openness.

Similarly, when a child or young adult decides to share something that is important to them with you, listen to them. Really listen. If they ask for advice tell them about your experiences and let them know they’re not alone. Can you imagine classrooms that are run with this in mind? I can because I’ve seen them in action. There are many amazing teachers out there teaching their students to be kind, open, appropriately vulnerable, and honest. As an adult, simply just showing that you’re human and make mistakes too is an act of vulnerability and often an act of kindness as well.

Be kind always, and be vulnerable when appropriate. Openness and empathy lead to happy children and consequently, to happy learners.

The joy of learning. Together.


Why We Aren’t Kind: Bullies and Empathy


There are days, when even the kindest folks falter. There are days, when we make mistakes and stray from our best selves, maybe with a snarky remark, unkind words, or with gossip and criticism. We all make mistakes and by taking responsibility for our actions and making amends we can move forward and start again.

Sometimes however we run into folks who are unkind more often than they are kind. Sometimes we find ourselves face to face with someone who treats us unfairly with an aim to hurt us. We ask ourselves, why do they want to cause me pain? What did I do? The answer is that it’s really not about you. It’s about them, and only about them.

I believe we are born kind, and we learn hate. With that being said it’s hugely important to remember that a bully has most likely been bullied by someone else. They learned to do it somewhere, from someone. It’s not an excuse for their behavior but it’s an explanation.

We can teach our children to respond to unkindness with empathy and action. We do not need to let people treat us unkindly, but we can still address the situation with empathy, knowing that the bully is in pain too even if they are unaware of it.

The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral,
begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy.
Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it.
Through violence you may murder the liar,
but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth.
Through violence you may murder the hater,
but you do not murder hate.
In fact, violence merely increases hate.
So it goes.
Returning violence for violence multiplies violence,
adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars.
Darkness cannot drive out darkness:
only light can do that.
Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

The joy of learning. Together. 


Kindess Lessons

be kind

What can I do with my child to promote kindness, you ask? Well, let me tell you…

  • Create a kindness board

Have you ever heard of a vision board? A vision board is essentially a visual representation of all your dreams and goals. Similarly you can create a kindness board with tons of things your child relates to kindness. You can use magazines, print pictures of friends and family, etc…You can include kind people (both famous and not), kind actions, and other images of kindness. It could be fun to create a section for goals of kindness too! Brainstorm some things your child wants to do to show kindness towards others. Think volunteering, helping friends, giving thanks etc…

  •  Read books about kindness and maybe even write some yourself

There are so many awesome books about kindness, but if you need a few ideas you can visit my post on books about kindness as a starting point. Use those books as inspiration and help your child use their creativity to create and illustrate their own story to teach kindness.

  • Get out into the community and volunteer

Find ways to get involved in your community! There are tons of volunteer opportunities for kids and adults. Whether you’re looking for a one-time or recurring opportunity there are always people that can use your help. Start by looking up organizations you’d like to help and give them a call!

  • Lead by example

If we want our children to be kind, we must be kind a well. Model gratitude, love, respect, and acceptance. Every. Single. Day.

  • Kindness charts

When a child struggles with kindness (let’s face it we all do sometimes) it can be helpful to make a kindness chart with them. A kindness chart is essentially a behavior chart with a specific goal in mind. By noting kind behavior in a chart, the child can see when they’ve made good choices and when they made some mistakes. A physical chart can help them see how they are doing and adjust their behavior.

The joy of learning. Together.


Books That Teach Kindness

As promised I have compiled a few books that teach kindness. Although there are many great books out there, for the purpose of brevity I will list four. The first two books are suggestions for lower elementary readers, while the second two are for an older audience of young readers.

  1. “The Giving Tree” by Shel Silverstein.

the giving tree

A true classic for young readers. I love its focus on empathy and find my heart breaking a little for the giving tree every time I read it. The story reminds young readers to be grateful for the support they have, and to return love and kindness.

  1. “Have you Filled a Bucket Today?” By Carol McCloud

bucket filler

This book uses the metaphor of filling up a bucket with your love, kindness, and positive actions. It encourages loving behavior by illustrating how our actions and words either “fill up” or “empty” our buckets.

  1. The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis


Although perhaps above the reading level of younger children, it is accessible to them by reading aloud with an adult. The characters in “The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe” and particularly relatable to children and the book has many lessons on kindness and navigating sibling relationships.

  1. “Huckleberry Finn” by Mark Twain


A more complex look into friendship, freedom and systemic oppression. It asks readers to think about how we as a part of a community within a broader society, show either love and kindness, or hate and subjugation. Because the story touches on a handful or sensitive (albeit very important issues) I suggest this story be saved for middle and high school readers.

“Kindness is the language which the deaf can hear and the blind can see.”

-Mark Twain

The joy of learning. Together. 


Kindness a Definition

Thank you to those of you who responded with you definitions, I loved them! Based on your responses and my own ideas of what kindness is, I came up with this list of words that exemplify what kindness is.

  • Patience
  • Acceptance
  • Love
  • Respect
  • Empathy
  • Support
  • Trust
  • Sympathy
  • Forbearance (self control and tolerance)

I also came up with a list of concrete examples of actions kids can relate to and use on a daily basis.

  • Provide relief or help others when they need it. For example, helping a friend tie their shoe or helping them with a math problem
  • Give hugs
  • Give compliments
  • Wait your turn
  • Listen without interrupting
  • Try to understand someone else’s point of view. For example, perhaps you’re trying to decide on which game to play, and your friend is upset because you’ve gotten to choose the last few times. Think how you would feel if you were them, and act based on how you think they might feel (maybe let them choose this time to be fair).
  • When in a disagreement, wait to respond if you know you’ll lose your temper. Take a deep breath, walk away for a little while, or talk to a trusted adult.
  • Speaking to others as you would like to be spoken to. Think, “Would I like it if someone said this to me?”
  • Using the “Golden Rule” in general
  • Show appreciation by saying “thank you” to others. For example you can say thank you to your parents for making you meals and helping with homework, or to your friends for their kindness towards you.
  • When someone else is sad you can show them sympathy by asking if you can help them, giving them a hug, or telling them you care about them.
  • Remind yourself that you can disagree with someone and still care about them.

Most importantly, BE RIGHT SIZED. This was my number one classroom rule. It means that in order to be kind we must always remember that we are not better or worse than the person sitting next to us. Nothing about us makes us inherently better or worse than anybody else. Our abilities, ethnicity, religion, race, gender, skin color, socio-economic status, learned skills, possessions, grades, ideas, or geographic location etc…do no make us better or worse than anybody else. If we remember to be just the right size, not bigger (better) or smaller (less important) we can do a lot of good and spread a lot of kindness.

Next up, I’ll be talking about books that you can read with your child to teach them about kindness. Get excited, I know I am!

The joy of learning. Together.



I have been thinking a lot about kindness. The experience of kindness is undoubtely integral to learning and flourishing. We cannot grow and learn in a classroom, in a home, or in a community where there is an absence of kindness. I believe that there is no more important endeavor than to be kind to others and to exercise empathy. I know that if kindness is my first goal, then everything else I strive to accomplish will be positively affected.

Let’s start at the beginning with a basic and important question. What is kindness? It seems like such a silly question, but it’s not. Let’s pretend for a moment that a child you care about asked you to answer that question. What would you say? How would you explain or summarize what kindness is? What would you hope they understood from your definition? Do you embody kindness in the way you would explain it to this child? If not, why not? If so, how so? You see, it’s not really a simple question because it involves so much action. In the next handful of posts I will be discussing the topic of kindness, and as kindness is action I would like to hear from my readers! Tell me, how do you define kindness?


The kinds hands one of my past 3rd grade classes

The joy of learning. Together.