Empathy in the Schools

The empathy symbol has been used in K-12 schools from Phoenix, Arizona to Ontario, Canada; from Houston, Texas to The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Empathy materials are available for free and for purchase.

Teaching Empathy

Here are some ways you can use the empathy symbol to foster the core value of empathy in your school, as well as ways that schools have promoted increased empathy in their students:

    • Print and distribute the free downloadable empathy symbol materials from this website. The B & W bookmarks can be printed on cardstock, 8 to a page, for students to color. The saying on it is a simple and beautifully relatable quote from Alfred Adler about empathy. The posters can be displayed in classrooms and common areas.
    • Print the empathy symbol onto the top of a blank piece of paper, and have an essay contest about empathy. Students could write about how they learned to be more empathetic and understanding of someone different from themselves, or why their school would be a better place if all students and teachers practiced empathy toward one another or similar topics. Essays could be read at a general assembly, or printed in a school newspaper.
    • Use the empathy symbol as part of a “values” curriculum at school. Each week, focus on a different value. In addition to empathy, symbols that already exist for pro-social values such as peace and compassion can be displayed each week (such as the peace symbol, a heart for caring, and so on.) For those important values not already associated with a particular symbol, such as respect and teamwork, a great art project would be to have students create their own symbols for those values.
    • A middle school in Champlin, Minnesota had “mixed-up lunch”, in which students were assigned to sit at lunch tables with kids they normally didn’t sit with, thus offering a wonderful opportunity for kids to get to know other kids unlike themselves in a relaxed setting.
    • Many schools invite speakers to share with students their experiences—as an immigrant, as a gay person, as a Native American, as a person with a disability, and so on.
    • Read and use the book Unselfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World by Michele Borba
    • A search of your local public library will connect you with dozens of great books for children which will help them understand the lives of those different from themselves in culture, religion, body abilities, and experiences. Here are a few recommended books for children: Samir and Yonaton by Daniella Carmi. This book for grades 4-8 or ages 10 and up is about a Palestinian boy and an Israeli boy who find common ground and a friendship while hospitalized. Those Shoes by Maribeth Boelts. The main character desperately wants “those shoes” that everyone in his class has, but his grandmother tells him “There’s no room for want around here. Just need.” Although this is a picture book, the teacher who recommended it has used it with her middle school classes. Abuela by Arthur Dorros. A beautiful picture book about a girl who imagines herself flying over New York City with her Spanish grandmother. The Ugly Vegetables by Grace Lin. A picture book about a girl who thinks her mother’s Chinese vegetable garden is ugly compared to the neighbors’’ flower gardens, but she comes to appreciate the wonderful soup it makes.
    • Check out this book blog for teachers on books to encourage empathy in students:
    • 13 Children’s books that encourage empathy
    • For middle school and high school students: Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson. Stunningly beautiful and evocative poems about her experiences growing up black in both the north and the south in the United States in the 1960s.
    • To help children recognize the common humanity we all share, regardless of apparent differences, students of all ages can play the “10 Things We Have in Common” game. Mix students up randomly into groups of four to six, and ask them to come up with a list of ten unexpected things they have in common.


    • An elementary school in Minnesota held their first “Empathy Day” in 2009. All the teachers wore empathy buttons, and they used activities from the book, Teaching Children Empathy, The Social Emotion, by Tonia Caselman, Ph.D., as well as activities from this website. Here are some of the teachers’ comments: “Our Empathy Day activity went very well! I got a lot of positive feedback from people, like ‘This was the best community building day activity we’ve done yet.’ People were able to really go with it. My kids really liked coloring the bookmarks, and it was important to them to keep them and take them home.” “I thought it was great. It was nice to do the activity about Supportive or Trashy phrases. It really got the kids thinking about how often they use the words “whatever” and “so what”. The book Somebody Loves You Mr. Hatch was also a SUPER way to demonstrate (and feel) empathy for someone else!”“I thought the activities were meaningful and worthwhile. The empathy button symbol helped students to visualize the concept. I would definitely use them again.”
    • For the school’s most recent Empathy Day, the kids drew posters with their own messages about empathy. They clearly put a lot of thought and feeling into them!


  • A teacher at a middle school in Toronto reported great enthusiasm among her students for the empathy symbol. She said,
    “My class made posters and advertised on the announcements each day about the empathy symbol and the buttons. They also went to every class in the school and told each class about your symbol and what it stands for. We had your poster colour printed and put on up in every class in the school. We sold the 200 buttons in 2 days! The class was so excited. Our school is involved with Free the Children and their Adopt a Village program. We have committed to building a school in Kenya and providing a clean water well. That means our very inner-city school in Toronto is attempting to raise $14,000. Before school ended for the holidays, we had a dance in the afternoon. I forgot my camera and I was so disappointed because I wanted a picture of all the students wearing their buttons. Students were telling me that people on the subway were asking them about the buttons and the students were eager to share your symbol and website information.”