Virtue Wednesday: Elevating Empathy

I am very happy to introduce today’s Virtue Wednesday post written by Barbara Gruener!

Barbara Gruener is a school counsellor and character coach at a National School of Character in Friendswood, Texas. When she’s not working with tomorrow’s leaders, she enjoys reading, writing, baking, knitting and spending time with her family. Barbara is the author of The Corner On Character blog.

Empathy. It’s all that I’ve been able to think about since I heard parenting expert Dr. Michele Borba talk about this all-important virtue at a Character Education Conference three years ago.

Empathy. It’s the virtue that allows us to identify with and understand another’s situation, feelings, and motives.

Empathy. What if it really is the key to solving the bullying epidemic? What if it really is the most important thing a student brings to a class family? What if it really is simply that powerful?

So since then, I’ve been working with my students to recognize and understand what empathy is; how it looks, how it sounds, and how it feels and how it works.

Our first step in elevating empathy is teaching children about feelings. They won’t be able to understand another’s feelings if they don’t recognize, understand, and manage their own in healthy ways. I’ve done a lot of empathy work with my students by simply asking, “What was that experience like for you?” and “How did that feel?” I’ve turned my ceiling tiles into feeling tiles by drawing emoticons on them. Students will point to the tiles that they think best matches their feeling. I’m careful to remind them that we may not always choose our feelings, but we get to choose how we react to them. Every time.

Once they understand their feelings, it’s easier to experience empathy for one another. I use a lot of literature in my peace classes and encourage text-to-self connections by stopping periodically through stories to ask, “What’s going on with that character?” and “What would it feel like to be him?” “And what does he need?” A great example of a page that I’ve used to elevate empathy is this one from The Potato Chip Champ by Maria Dismondy.


Then, it’s time to let the students practice putting themselves in one another’s shoes. Share your stories with them. Point out how people are feeling. Ask them to image how someone will feel in a certain situation. Encourage them to predict how a character will feel in a show they’re watching or a book they’re reading. Then, have them switch places with someone to actually experience their feelings.

Try this little illustration to help them understand what it means to switch places.


Using both hands, put your thumb up on one, and your pinky up on the other. Then have the pinky and the thumb switch places.


Then continue to switch. It’s harder to do than you might think, but guess what? So is experiencing empathy. It takes practice. It’s hard work sometimes, but in the end, it’s worth it.

Watch a video clip of my first-grade friend who’s working so hard at making the empathy switch:

Here’s a little poem for the kids to recite while they’re mastering the switch.


For more ideas, visit the Elevating Empathy Pinterest page, the Start Empathy website, and this Empathy In A (Shoe) Box lesson.

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