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Kindness Isn’t Enough

Teachers have the ability to change the world one child at a time, and it is time to step up. Over my teaching career, I have emphasized kindness to my students. Like many of you, I have kindness posters, t-shirts focusing on kindness, and curriculum units focused on kindness; I praise my students for showing kindness every day. In today’s world, however, kindness is no longer enough. It’s no longer enough to just “be kind”.

We need to be able to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes and imagine what their life is like. We need to be able to recognize emotions in people who may or may not be “like us”.  We need to avoid judgment and spend more time communicating with people instead of to people.

In order to make the world a better place, we need to start focusing on empathy.

Researcher and author Dr. Brene Brown states that “empathy is a skill that can bring people together and make people feel included”. Doesn’t that sound exactly like a skill that our students need in order to make the world a better place? Brown goes on to describe the four qualities of empathy. She states they are:

  1. Perspective taking
  2. Staying out of judgment
  3. Recognizing emotion in others
  4. Communicating

How different would the dialogue in national news stories be if people practiced those four qualities of empathy? How different would our social media news feeds be if people took the time to practice empathy? In the classroom, empathy would involve being able to understand someone else’s perspective, to communicate effectively, to resolve conflicts, and then to take those important skills out into the world.

Brown’s website, www.brenebrown.com, offers some lessons in teaching empathy. You can find ideas under the “classroom hub” tab. I encourage you to read any of her books, but especially Dare to Lead.

Dr. Michele Borba has also written a book about empathy titled Unselfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World. In her book, she suggests several strategies parents and teachers can use to teach empathy to children. One of those strategies is to build a “feeling vocabulary”. As a teacher, my students usually limit their feelings to mad, sad, happy, or scared. I need to develop strategies to  discuss other feelings such as annoyed, anxious, betrayed, confident, frustrated, gloomy, insecure, jealous, safe, shy, stressed, and the list goes on. Students can’t recognize those feelings in others until they can recognize those feelings in themselves.

 One of Borba’s strategies I’m going to try is playing feelings charades.

In this game, various feelings are put on cards. Students take turns acting out those feelings while other students guess. My elementary students will probably need a word bank in order to complete this activity because they have a limited vocabulary when it comes to feelings. Once students get a grasp of their own feelings, they can start to put themselves into someone else’s shoes. They can begin to imagine how another person feels. Children (and adults) can learn  by imagining themselves on the other side of a disagreement. This book has many other useful techniques and resources teachers and parents can use to help close the empathy gap; therefore, I highly recommend it.

I have found several videos on YouTube that can be used to teach empathy. For the younger grades, Brene Brown has some videos on empathy. Sesame Street and Arthur also offer some videos. Older students may like videos from Kid President. I also found some YouTube videos by SoulPancake that discuss the science behind empathy. These videos could lead to some amazing discussions with middle and high school students. They could also be used as a professional development tool with colleagues.

I recently came across a website that has resources to teach empathy and other elements of social/emotional learning (www.resilienteducator.com). Once you get to the website, click on “resources” and then conduct a search for “empathy”. There are many resources available;  as a bonus, you can sign up to receive emails from this organization. Plus, there are also professional development resources.

Another website I found was www.kidshealth.org which has resources for grades K-12. The teacher’s guides for different grade levels are listed on the right hand side of the page. Resources for teaching empathy are listed under “personal health”.

Everfi is a website I originally used to teach STEM concepts. However, it has a course called the Compassion Project that teaches compassion, empathy, emotions, and growth mindset to students in grades 2-4.  The Character Playbook course teaches social/emotional learning to grades 7-9. There are courses in many other categories also; however, these are the courses I found that are the most relevant to teaching empathy.

I want to motivate you not to think of empathy as “one more thing on my plate” to teach. Without empathy, our flimsy paper plate won’t be able to hold up to the inequities of society.  We need to teach our students about empathy--because recent history has proven that  kindness isn’t enough.


Denise Henggeler has been teaching 4th grade at Northeast Nodaway for 22 years; however, she has never taught the same lesson twice. She received her Bachelor’s Degree in Early Childhood/Elementary Education (1997) and her Master’s of Science in Middle School Education (2007) from Northwest Missouri State University. Denise co-wrote a grant for her school to become a NASA Explorer School. She loves being part of a district so small that the preschool through twelfth grade is housed in one building. Denise was named a 2020 Missouri Teacher of the Year Finalist, and she encourages students and colleagues alike to “Dare Mighty Things”! You can follow Denise on Twitter at @NEN4thgrade.





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