Throughout one’s teaching career, there may be several times for which an educator might feel sympathy for a student. However, a caring teacher empathizes with students on almost a daily basis. It is important to understand the difference in these emotions and why empathy is such a vital characteristic in helping develop the whole child.

What is Empathy?

Like the idiom, “walk a mile in someone else’s shoes,” having empathy is the ability to understand what another person is going through. Yet empathy is also more than that. Having empathy means a person can feel what a situation has caused another to feel. It is a deeper understanding of that person’s experiences, challenges, and even their thought process.

What is Sympathy?

Easily put, is feeling sorrow for someone else. We often associate sympathy with the loss of a loved one or perhaps a terminal diagnosis. It can also mean feeling pity for the misfortune of another person; for instance, if a neighbor’s house has burned down, one might feel sympathy toward their loss.

What is the Difference?

The ending of these two words, “-pathy,” has its which means to suffer. While these two emotions are similar, there are several differences. Sympathy is a judgmental response. The person feeling sympathy may not fully connect to or understand what the other person’s loss means to them. Empathy is a more profound connection toward the feeling of what someone else is going through as related to one’s own experiences.

Recently, teachers have developed their empathy as they work with students who have suffered losses and family-related stresses due to the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. A teacher may be sympathetic toward a student who has lost a loved one to the virus but will empathize by providing more time to work on computer-based assignments at school to the student whose parent has lost their job due to extensive quarantining.

Why are these Essential for Students to Have?

Through character-building activities, teachers often share the motto, “Treat others the way you want to be treated.” To teach students to be both sympathetic and empathetic, this often comes through modeling. If students see the teacher respond sympathetically when someone in the room experiences a loss, then students may react in the same manner.

Teaching empathy often requires an educator to think out loud and walk students through why they respond in a caring way toward someone struggling with a new skill or stressor in their life. This modeling will encourage students to think about others before responding without thinking about how the other will feel as a result of their words or actions.

Activities that Promote Empathy and Sympathy

Teaching skills through social-emotional learning takes time and lots of practice on the student’s part. They are not skills that can be taught in isolation but rather should be practiced frequently. As a teacher observes the students interacting, different needs may arise for which the teacher can emphasize.

There are a variety of that can be used to promote the development of empathy and sympathy skills.

Videos that Teach Emotional Skills

For younger students, there are lots of short videos appropriate for teaching empathy for others. Some speak directly to the topic, such as and , while others have characters demonstrating empathetic actions toward others. These allow the teacher to stop and discuss and provide modeling for students through trusted characters. There are even and other coaching videos for students through high school ages.

Model Empathy and Sympathy

One of the best ways to teach an emotional reaction is to be a good role model. When students see a teacher ask another student how they are doing after returning from a family member’s funeral, they learn how to respond in similar situations appropriately. Likewise, when a teacher talks to students about how an event, such as an illness, made the teacher feel and asks if anyone else has ever felt the same way, the teacher develops a sense of understanding and connecting to others’ feelings.

Discussions about Emotions

For just a few minutes each day, a teacher can open a discussion about potential scenarios and the emotions each brings. These could be in which partners discuss how they felt or might feel if they experienced a particular negative or positive event, such as: when a pet got lost, when they won the race, when they needed a hug but no one was around, when someone told them they had their shirt on backward at the end of the day, when their grandparent brought them an unexpected gift, etc. To extend this activity, have the children make a face that expresses that feeling.

Make it a Guessing Game

Teachers can also help students relate to others’ feelings by reading body language. For this activity, the teacher can display an image of someone making a specific face or showing body language that expresses an emotion. The teacher can then ask students to determine their feelings. To extend this, the students can develop ideas that might explain why this person feels this particular way. This allows students to read body language and connect their own experiences to the situation.

Listening Skills

Teaching children to be good listeners when explaining how they feel can be a challenging task. By nature, children want to interrupt and tell how they feel instead of listening and relating to that person. This skill can be taught, though.

A teacher can read a passage from a story and ask questions like:

  • How is the character feeling?
  • How can you tell the character is upset/excited/etc.?
  • What made the character upset/excited/etc.?

Teachers can extend the activity by asking questions like:

  • What would you do to help this character feel better if you were in the story?
  • Have you felt this way, and if so, what made you feel this way?

Teaching children to sympathize and empathize with others will help build a culture of respect. Students must be able to see another’s perspective when going through stressful situations, although it is also essential that children understand they don’t have to solve someone else’s problem to be empathetic. By modeling and teaching these emotions, students will learn to give and receive appropriate responses to multiple situations in another’s life.