Lesson plan

Practicing Empathy

In this lesson, students will learn about the different regions of the brain and connect them to compassion and empathy. They will also learn how all brains are wired for empathy.
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Grade Subject
  • Students will be able to identify the different regions of the brain connected to empathy and compassion.
  • Students will be able to practice showing compassion to someone in need.
(15 minutes)
  • Bring students together in a circle, standing.
  • Explain to students that they will be participating in an activity called "In These Shoes."
  • Tell them that in this activity, they will take their shoes off and state, "These are the shoes of someone who..." Then, they will make a true statement about themselves that others possibly don't know, and place their shoes in the center of the circle.
  • Demonstrate for the class how to complete the activity. Take your shoes off, hold them, and state, "These are the shoes of someone who...(make a personal statement)," then place your shoes in the center of the circle.
  • Tell students that it's important for them to use their listening skills and remember each of their classmate's statements. After everyone has placed their shoes in the center, one person at a time will voluntarily go into the middle of the circle, pick up a pair of shoes, bring them back to the person who wears the shoes, and repeat that person's "These are the shoes of someone who..." statement.
  • Begin the activity and continue until everyone has shared a statement and received their shoes.
  • Ask the class what they noticed during this activity. How do they feel? Did they learn something about one of their classmates that they hadn't known before?
  • Explain that it is important to take time to understand others and the "shoes they walk in."
  • Ask, "Does anyone know what this practice is called?" Tell them that it is called practicing empathy.
  • Write the word "empathy" on the board.
(10 minutes)
  • Ask students to think about what empathy means, based on the activity they just completed. Write their definition on the board.
  • Then, write and share the following definition of empathy: "the ability to understand and share the feelings of another."
  • Ask the class what they think of when they hear the word "empathy."
  • Show the "Brené Brown on Empathy" video. As they watch, ask students to be aware of the difference between sympathy and empathy, and to write down the differences between the two on a piece of paper.
  • After the video, ask the class what stood out to them. Ask, "What is the difference between sympathy and empathy? How does this connect back to the 'In These Shoes' activity from earlier?"
  • Review the definition of empathy on the board.
  • Ask the class what they can add to their previous definition.
  • Ask the students how we can practice empathy. (Examples: deeply listening to others, connecting with another, offering a hug.)
  • Ask them, "Can we practice empathy for someone who we don't know well, or who may be challenging for us?" Explain, "Yes, we can practice empathy for anyone, but sometimes it's more challenging to practice it for someone difficult or a stranger. As we do it more, practicing empathy can get easier and easier."
  • Explain to the class that practicing mindfulness or heartfulness is another way we can build empathy for others in our lives (even people we may have a difficult time with). By practicing these things, we will understand that all people want to feel peace, love, and understanding.
  • Tell the students that they will now practice heartfulness and empathy together.
(15 minutes)
  • Ask students to come into a mindful and still body, with their backs upright and eyes closed (or looking down).
  • Tell them to take a few deep breaths into their bellies, and to allow for their shoulders to relax as they breathe out.
  • Guide them to visualize a person or pet whom they love and who also loves and cares for them.
  • Ask them to imagine this person's face as if they are with them in the room right now.
  • Tell the students that with their next breath, they should breathe in the love they receive from this person or animal. As they breathe out, they should send love and kindness back to them. Pause for the class to breathe in the love they receive, and to breathe out the love they give. Have them do this two more times.
  • Again, guide the class to breathe in love from their loved one. This time, ask them hold it within them and notice where it is in their body. Have them let the feeling of love move through their body and give them feelings of strength and warmth. Tell them to allow the image of their loved one to gently fall away.
  • Now, guide them to imagine someone who it may be challenging to be around or empathize with. Tell them that this could be a challenging friend, someone they may have gotten in an argument with, or someone who is not always caring to themselves or others.
  • Guide the students to visualize this figure, and to look at this person closely (maybe even in their eyes).
  • Say, "Try to visualize what you may have in common with this person. For example, they have eyes, hands, and a body, just like you. They have emotions, like you. They experience love, joy, sadness, and pain, just like you. They want to feel peace. They want to be loved. They want to be understood."
  • Ask the students to bring back the love and kindness they received into their bodies from their loved one earlier. Then, ask them to breathe it out to this difficult person. (Tell them that this may be hard to do, but they should be patient with themselves and do the best they can.)
  • Ask them to let their love and kindness fill and surround this person as they try to understand and empathize with their actions and needs. Pause.
  • Then, tell the class to gently allow the image of this person to fall away.
  • Guide the students to take a few full breaths and gently open their eyes when they are ready.
  • Ask them what they noticed, and whether this heartfulness practice was easy or difficult for them.
(25 minutes)
  • Ask students, "What would our community be like if everyone practiced empathy?"
  • Then, ask, "What would our world be like if everyone truly tried to understand others' feelings and practiced empathy?"
  • Show the class the Empathy Skits worksheet, and explain that they will be going back to their seats to create a skit (or movie) about empathy. They will be working in groups of three.
  • Read through the instructions on the worksheet, and tell the students that they will be sharing their skits with the class.
  • Divide the class into groups of three, and distribute the worksheets.
  • Allow the students to begin making their skits.

Enrichment: Ask students to write a letter to someone to whom they would like to express empathy, such as someone who is going through a challenging time, someone who they would like to forgive, or someone they have recently argued with.

Support: When dividing the class into groups for the Empathy Skits, place advanced students in groups with students who need extra support. You may also help a small group of students on their movie/skit.

(5 minutes)
  • Observe students as they collaborate to create their skits.
  • As the groups present their skits, assess their understanding of the importance of practicing empathy.
(20 minutes)
  • After all students have finished making their skits, ask them to join together in a circle, on the rug or floor. Have them bring all necessary materials to present their skits.
  • Depending on class size and time constraints, have students share their skits with the class. (For example, if running short on time, you can divide the class in half, and have each group present their skit to half the class. Or, you could spread out presentations over the span of multiple days.)
  • After each group presents, ask the class to offer "P-Q-S" (Praise, Questions, Suggestions) for the skit.
  • Review the definition of empathy, and ask the class to try to be more aware of others' emotions over the next few days. Tell them that you will check in with them about this again in a few days.
  • Remind the students that they may also do the empathy/heartfulness guided meditation at any time.

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