Without a doubt, 2020 was a difficult year for all of us. For school-aged children, navigating the COVID-19 pandemic safely also entailed adjusting to virtual learning and distancing from their friends. But as many students return to the classroom — and as some enter a classroom for the first time — another hurdle looms. Just like adults, kids will have to learn to be around other people again, including peers with identities and experiences that differ from their own.
With this in mind, it’s important to develop strategies to teach kids empathy and kindness early on, especially as they begin to socialize in person again. Activities like role-playing and reading are just a few ways to help students connect with their emotions as well as the emotions of others. Here, we’ve rounded up a few great activities that teach empathy — for kids and adults.
Students Can Emotionally Connect to Characters in Stories
Having story time with younger children or offering new reading material to older children can be a great opportunity for children to learn empathy. If illustrations are used in the story, you can see if younger kids can name the emotions of the characters’ faces. Ask the children how these characters might be feeling and if they have ever felt the same way (scared, excited, etc.). Additionally, let them see that you are concerned for or connected to the characters as well so they can see that it’s important to care for the well-being of others.
For kids who are older, teachers or parents can provide special questions or journal prompts to better understand the characters in their books. The questions may ask scholars to imagine what the characters might feel when making different choices or in their current circumstances.
Older Children Can Write Out Feelings in an Emotion Journal
An emotion journal is a great way for kids to begin to connect with their own feelings. Teachers and parents alike can incorporate journal time at a certain point in the day to allow them to write about their highs and lows.
Children can share parts of their journal entries with their peers if they are comfortable. Ultimately, writing out their feelings (and maybe sharing them with others) allows them to learn to express themselves healthily. If kids discuss their feelings — or let them out in a healthy way — they can begin to build empathy by relating to each other.
Random Acts of Kindness or Volunteering Will Encourage Kids to Show Empathy
Doing random acts of kindness or taking part in a volunteer experience will help kids learn to think about other people’s feelings, and perhaps put them ahead of their own. Teachers or parents can create a jar or chart where a student can track one act of kindness completed during the week.
It’s also great for children to discuss how being kind makes people feel good as opposed to bullying or mean acts that make people feel bad. Their behavior can be reinforced also by talking about how volunteering or the act of kindness made them feel as well. Likely, they will be excited and happy that something they did helped someone else.
Children Can Create ‘Feelings Collages’ to Learn Emotions
For younger kids, especially those who are shy and quiet, creating a “feelings collage” will help them express their emotions. With this unique collage, they can learn to read faces, body language, and the emotions of others as well.
Children can cut and glue pictures from magazines onto poster boards or construction paper. These pictures would have people expressing any kind of feeling (happiness, sadness, fear, etc.). Kids could even label the images they glue with a feeling word, and, later, share with their peers if desired. The collages can be used at school or home to practice identifying and labeling feelings. If they want to really get creative, kids can try their hand at creating drawings of different people with various emotions.
Imaginative Roleplay Helps Students See Emotions in Real Life
Roleplaying allows kids to see circumstances from a completely different perspective than their own. Teachers or parents can encourage children to step into the shoes of someone different from them, asking them about different scenarios like, What if you were at a new school without any friends? or If you saw someone getting bullied, what would you do — and how would you feel?
While watching someone act out a “role,” other kids could chime in about the faces or body language of the person. This allows them to learn to read people better, which can be a major pro in the future as an adult. Roleplaying like this really helps put circumstances into perspective and even helps change behaviors. Plus, younger kids love to play pretend, so it’s a win-win!
Teachers and Parents Should Model Empathy to Kids
You’ve certainly heard of the saying, “Do as I say, not as I do.” That will certainly not help teach empathy. While kids may pick up some good habits that are taught by parents, teachers, and other authority figures, children model what they see, even if the adult isn’t aware that they’re being observed. Kids are always paying attention, so it’s important to model empathetic behavior as much as possible.
For example, teachers should be mindful of their interactions with other adults whether in-person or on screen. Parents should be careful not to snap at or belittle each other or their children at home. While trying to completely avoid conflict is impossible, how we speak to and treat each other matters.