Empathy can be taught. The opportunity to imagine what life is like for someone facing difficult challenges, activates the compassion response. By conjuring up the image of someone your students already care about and basking in the feeling of that glow, your students can then be encouraged to share that sentiment with people who are different than they are. It’s an intentional, generous act of the heart.
An exercise to help students develop empathy
Say to students:
“Let’s take a few slow breaths together. Breathing in for a count of four, holding it for two, and then a big breath out for one, two, three, four, and five. (repeat four times).
“I want you to picture in your mind, someone you love very much. It could even be a special animal. Imagine their face, their eyes, their hair color, their smile, and where they might be right now. If you can, see them in your mind’s eye. Let the feeling of being with them relax your whole body.
“Place your hand on your heart and imagine sending them love from your heart center to their heart center. Imagine them receiving this love and smiling. Stay with this image for a few breaths.
“Now we are going to keep that feeling in our hearts and use it to be generous to others. The world is filled with people who are different. You are different to people too! Now picture in your mind, someone who is really different from you. Maybe they have a different skin color or different facial features or perhaps this person you’re imagining is in a wheelchair, or is someone who can’t see or can’t hear. Picture this person in your mind and just be with them for a few breaths.
“Imagine they are sitting with you right now. Let them know that you want to be curious about their life instead of fearing the differences between you. Let them know that you see them and that your heart is open to knowing them better. Like the flowers in a garden, we are all different. Yet we all belong. As we all grow and learn to accept people who are different than we are, we add to the love in this world. A world where we all belong.”
All any kid wants is to be accepted. By teaching our students empathy, we are fostering a sense of acceptance and love in our students that will radiate to everyone in their lives.