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We all teach SEL: Empathy activities & tools for students

Resources to help foster empathy in every classroom, every day

Building social and emotional learning (SEL) skills such as empathy requires face-to-face interactions, meaningful discussion, and reflection. Edtech is no complete substitute for that, but there are tools that can supplement the development of character in the classroom and at home. According to the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley, empathy is the ability to sense other people’s emotions, coupled with the ability to imagine what someone else might be thinking or feeling.

While some tools focus specifically on empathy, the websites and apps that you use daily (in all subjects) can be used to promote perspective taking, too. You don’t have to stop using the tools you love or toss out your lesson or curricular plans to start developing SEL. Below we have included some tips, tools, and actionable ideas for seamlessly integrating empathy and life skills-building into your content classroom.

Why empathy?
Classrooms are complex, collaborative, and diverse spaces. An enriching, engaging, and supportive classroom environment is one in which students reflect on themselves and their peers as learners and as people, full of similarities and differences. A group culture that encourages trust and friendship—that practices empathy—functions better as a whole and can better tackle tough concepts. Some schools are recognizing how impactful empathy can be, like the one in Pennsylvania where students shared their deepest, most painful secrets before 500 of their peers. The leaders of this school believe that events like this—free of criticism or judgment—create openness and understanding rather than discord and isolation. It’s through this cultivation of empathic students that schools become communities.

Take action

  • Don’t be afraid to tackle hard topics as a class—get students thinking about their similarities and differences.
  • Set high expectations, and find opportunities to help students see how their feelings are connected to behavior.
  • Treat each student as an individual, and use a problem-solving approach when helping them overcome an obstacle.
  • Make sure the technology you use doesn’t take the place of, but instead supplements, face-to-face interaction.
  • Using our Digital Citizenship Curriculum? Both our student interactives and lessons already foster key SEL skills.
  • Use some other excellent SEL resources, including CASEL, Character Lab, Edutopia, and Ashoka.
  • Think about the digital tools you’re already using in the classroom. Can you find a creative way to use them to model empathy? Check out our suggestions on the next page!

Directly target empathy
See our Top Games That Teach Empathy list for more empathy-focused tools.

Each Peekapak topic (including empathy) consists of an introductory storybook, eight activities to do in the classroom, and eight activities to send home for kids to do with their parents. Lessons for grades K–5 help kids explore SEL concepts from a variety of angles.

This incredibly relatable story about navigating adult love and life has some mature themes, but the controls in the game are mapped so well to emotions that kids learn how to traverse the nuances of fresh relationships in a compassionate way.

Build empathy in all subjects

For ELA classrooms

Have students use this storytelling app to upload pictures, videos, and their voices to illustrate an emotional experience in their lives or to describe likes and dislikes. Through sharing, students will begin to see what it’s like for their peers.

Facing History and Ourselves
Use Facing History’s resources to discuss and reflect on students’ experiences and beliefs about tough topics such as racism and prejudice. Students can also create and share bio-poems as part of a community unit.

For math classrooms

Pattern Shapes
Ask students about personal situations and have them use the app to construct a depiction of their feelings. Students can annotate the design, and after that a discussion can help students learn from each other while they study geometric shapes.

Illustrate the crippling financial quandaries of poverty. Have students discuss their play, using correct finance terms such as “minimum wage” and “inflation,” and host an honest talk about how Spent oversimplifies the issue of choice.

For science classrooms

Use this 3D-design tool to address people’s needs. Students can research societal problems (such as water quality or climate change). Once they build understanding and empathy, they can go through design processes to create a prototype solution.

WWF Free Rivers
This augmented-reality app immerses students in a river ecosystem. Students will gain perspective as they learn how rivers affect people and wildlife. Have students discuss the pros and cons of building dams for historical societies and for their own community.

For social studies classrooms

Teaching Tolerance
Videos and photo essays depict life experiences around the world. Use the Mix It Up activities to have students identify social boundaries at school, and then have them use primary-source documents to find similar boundaries in history.

Global Oneness Project
This site showcases global life stories. Let students view the videos on climate change or sustainability, and then have them go out and create their own videos capturing a cultural experience in school or their own community.

For all classrooms

Shadow Puppet EDU
Start a project where students search for images directly in the app (from art museums or NASA) to tell a story of the personal connection they have to the book they read, the organism they observed, or an event in history. Share as a class.

Skype is great for communicating with students from around the world. Hook up with another class and have students share their stories, solve an engineering solution together, or practice another language to gain perspective about other cultures.

Engage families

 [Editor’s note: This post originally appeared on Common Sense Education.]

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