Empathy is central to the SEAL (Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning) initiatives, and this week’s Behaviour Matters aims to help you create an environment conducive to teaching empathy skills to your pupils

We cannot feel empathy for someone if we are feeling defensive or preoccupied with our own needs.

It makes sense, then, that if children are consistently put on the defensive, or if they grow up with many unmet emotional needs, these children will slowly become more concerned with self-defence and with their own interests in general, and less able to empathise with the troubles of someone else.


“It is only possible to be sensitive and to understand the perceptions of other people if we have the emotional resources to see the world as the other person sees it.”

Adrian Faupel (2003) Emotional Literacy: Assessment and Intervention

Central to the SEAL (Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning) initiatives is empathy, or the ability to recognise and respond to other people’s emotions. Being able to see the world through the eyes of another, recognising the pressures they face and how their behaviour is affected also allows you to consider your own behaviour and responses.

It is insufficient, in a teaching and learning environment, to hope that teachers and students alike will understand and develop this mature and subtle skill simply by being part of a group. While behavioural skills – empathy included – can be “caught”, there is a strong case for the key characteristics to be recognised and systematically taught.

In order to create an environment that allows you to teach and develop empathy skills you will first need to identify their key characteristics. These include:

  • observing and understanding the feelings and emotions of others; this is interpreted through both verbal and non-verbal behaviour
  • communicating that understanding and regard for others’ feelings
  • being able to sense the triggers for emotions
  • appreciating the differences in people’s reactions to feelings and emotions
  • understanding that each person views the world in an individual manner, based on their own background and experience, and that this unique view determines their responses and behaviour
  • having the skills to be able to adjust or modify your own behaviour in response to the observed emotions of the other person
  • being able to recognise and manage your own thoughts and emotions, thus demonstrating appropriate behaviour for the situation.

The above will present a considerable challenge for both primary and secondary teachers. The following practical tips will help you to meet that challenge by creating an appropriate teaching and learning environment.

Practical Tips

The primary and secondary SEAL materials promote the ability to recognise and manage emotions and motivate oneself to achieve targeted goals – not only to develop individual empathy skills but to be able to apply them in a social situation.

At the primary school level these skills may be introduced and developed through the use of:

  • role-play and drama using situations that promote and stimulate varying emotions
  • circle time activities with clear guidelines on listening skills, turn taking, and understanding other points of view
  • teaching situations that emphasise verbal and non-verbal language, which might involve the use of video, audio recording, puppets and drama (see the photo cards in the Primary SEAL materials) to help pupils interpret and act on these clues.

For both primary and secondary students, activities may include:

  • debates, class discussions and drama activities building on the skills and guidelines developed in circle time activities
  • studying differing people and cultures, religions and beliefs and appreciating diversity both within the school community and the local area.

As children mature they constantly question their own identity. They are evaluating their peers and adults all the time as they interact. Impacting on this are the hormonal changes through adolescence, together with the stresses and challenges that all students face as they make the transition from primary to secondary and then on to further education and employment.

Teachers must be aware of these pressures and teach specific skills such as conflict resolution, anger management and active listening. Make time in all curriculum areas for discussion, a sharing of views and an understanding of varying moral and cultural differences.

Schools will need to work hard in developing opportunities across all aspects of the curriculum to develop empathy skills. Where the work is compartmentalised and undertaken only by pastoral faculties or during “tutor time”, students will find it very difficult to transfer their learned skills. It is vital that all stakeholders are involved in this work; it then becomes a whole-school ethos allowing both teachers and students to apply the skills to all situations and in all social environments.

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This e-bulletin issue was first published in January 2008

About the author: Dave Stott has 30 years’ teaching experience including seven years as a headteacher. He has worked in mainstream and special schools and Local Authority Behaviour Support Services. Dave is now a writer, consultant and trainer.