Simple Social Skills For Kids – Teaching Empathy in the Classroom

There are many skills that the school system works wonderfully for teaching kids.

Empathy however is not one of them.

As soon as I use that word ‘empathy’ many people conjure up the wrong idea. They think that empathy means being soft, mushy, gooey and weak. And in an ever increasingly competitive cut throat world – stopping to think about other people’s feeling will only hold you back right?

Wrong. Quite the opposite of that is true. If you stop and worry so much about what other people think of you – then that will definitely hold you back, as it does MANY young learners. But that’s not empathy. When a young learner becomes paralysed with perfectionist fear about what someone will think of them, their thoughts are centred around themselves. If they actually realised what other people were thinking and feeling, they wouldn’t worry so much.

In the workforce, an accurate awareness of other peoples thoughts and feelings is actually an advantage. It gives one a better ability to read, collaborate with and influence other people.

Let me tell you what I see all too frequently at our Castle Hill Tutoring Centre where, by the way, we only work with teams up up to 3 students at a time. You ask one student a question and that student is attentive whilst they speak. But then as soon as a second student speaks, the first student zones out. And why wouldn’t they? They’ve been conditioned to think that the universe revolves around them, so as soon as they’re out of the spotlight – their attention switches off.

So here’s a couple of simple teaching strategies you can use to boost kids social awareness.


The first is simply to have a rule in your class (or team, or family, or whatever the environment is) that when someone else has been asked to speak, everyone else needs to pay them respect by giving their attention.

That sounds great in theory but you will always find at least one kid in every group who has allowed to become the centre of the universe so much, that all the rules in he world won’t help. So if you get a kid who is particularly fond of attention, this is the simplest trick.

Next time they are speaking and someone else’s attention wanders, make a point of stopping them to bring the wandering child’s attention back to the attention hungry child. If you make an effort to assert your authority in this moment, the attention hungry kid won’t interject or challenge your authority. By doing this several times, they learn to accept your rule because it suits them. Then, when it comes time to do the same when they become the one being told to pay attention to the next kid, they are more likely to respond. So long as they not only see but feel the benefit of that rule being ‘on their side’ then they will be less likely to oppose it and more likely to accept the rule for the sake of consistency.


Last week during one literacy lesson, we got the kids to stop and edit the writing task they had been working on over the previous weeks. This is an important skill because many kids are resistant to stop and look back over their own work – instead preferring to rush through and get it over with.

After about 20 minutes, they got kind of bored – insisting that they had edited a much as they could.

Great. Now for the fun part.

They then had to give their work to the person next to them who was going to make additional edits in a seperate colour to the students original edits. So now suddenly they are going to have their work critiqued, their eyes light up as the boredom suddenly dissipates into panic.

But here’s the interesting part. They are not only having their work critiqued but they have to critique someone else’s work. They might find some really silly mistakes in that other persons work which they might ordinarily have no hesitation to criticise. But now they have to stop and think – “Hang on, if I am not mindful of correcting this person in a way that considers their feelings, what’s to stop them from blasting my work with nor regard to my feeling?”

After they swap around two times so that each student has marked their team mates work and also had their work marked by their team mates, they suddenly see their work from a fresh perspective. They’ve had to after all – the exercise forces them to consider things through the lenses of their team mates eyes.

When you do this with a bit of repetition, it also changes the thinking process going on during the moments the student is putting pen to paper. When you are writing for your own eyes it’s easy to be lazy. But when each word you write has to first be considered from the audiences perspective, it teaches a young mind to think outside themselves remarkably well. Whilst this can create panic at first and fear of judgement, the opportunity to critique other people work teaches them that we all, including people we thought were judging us, have our vulnerabilities. As soon as you have to think about being compassionate to someone else’s vulnerability (whilst still being critically constructive) it reduces the fear of judgement. Quite simply, because when we’re fearful of others judgment, we’re not really seeing the world through their eyes but instead projecting our own insecurities onto them.

Of course this kind of exercise needs to be regulated well so that the students to not feel like they are competing among each other so much as they are competing for each other. When you put both these strategies into practice, you train young learners to be more realistically aware of the people around them which gets them out of their own head by breaking free of the self centred tunnel vision that most kids naturally develop unless their experience teaches them otherwise.

About Stuart Adams

Stuart Adams is the founder and Managing Director of TOTC. He is a former School Teacher and Careers Advisor as well as a qualified Dietitian and Psychotherapist. His Psychotherapist Sydney website has loads of free learning resources covering all areas of mental health.

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