Is Compassion Something That Can Be Taught?

Is compassion something that can really be taught? What can teachers do in the classroom to develop compassion in their students? Check out these tips, activities, and free products that you can use today!

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Can you really teach students compassion?  Sure, we can teach students about the definition of compassion, explain how compassion relates to other character traits and feelings, and we can show students relevant examples, but can we truly teach students to be more compassionate people?

There are so many factors that contribute to the development of empathy and compassion, most of which come from home at a very early age.  It gets even more complicated when we learn that some research indicates personality traits are, to some degree, inheritable.

Where does that leave teachers?  How can we approach compassion teaching activities so that students don’t just learn about it, but they also develop it more deeply?  There is no black-and-white answer to this question, but I do believe that every child sits on a compassion continuum.  Can we turn a child who exhibits very little compassion into the most compassionate child in your class?  Probably not, but we CAN be deliberate about inching him along his/her own continuum.

With that said, here is a list of suggestions for teachers at any level:

Demonstrate compassion:

When you have an opportunity to outwardly exhibit compassion, be the model!  Whether something unfortunate happens to someone that your students know personally, or there is a tragedy in the community, it’s a perfect time to model compassion.  Modeling compassion might simply involve acknowledging an event with a compassionate response.  “I feel so sad about the violence that happened downtown yesterday.  I’ve spent the day sending those people my love and I hope they are okay!”

You can also take it a step further by exhibiting an actionable response.  Follow up your first comment with something like, “To show that we care, today we are going to write letters to the people who were victims of that violence.”

It goes without saying that directing compassion towards students themselves is sure to have a huge impact.  After all, their own development of compassion stems, in a large part, from the compassion shown to them at home.  Don’t waste opportunities to show your student that you care when they are suffering in some way.

Create a simulation:

Simulations are not new in education and have long been used to help students put themselves in the shoes of others. If you choose to incorporate simulations in your classroom, it is important to be cognizant of the potential effects on students.  For example, if you choose a simulation that “hits close to home” for a student or a group of students, you need to be mindful of how the simulation roles are assigned (random assignment of roles works well).  Monitor students closely for adverse reactions and adjust your instruction accordingly.  Simulations can be very powerful teaching tools if they are implemented mindfully.

If you want to see some great examples of simulations, this activity puts students in the role of a farmer during the dust bowl.  This simulation puts students in the role of a pioneer traveling the Oregon Trail.  The variety of simulation activities available for classrooms is virtually endless.

Start a compassion campaign:

Are there organizations in your community that might benefit from acts of kindness?  Of course there are!  If you have a difficult time finding a local organization where students can deliver acts of compassion, there are surely a variety of national organizations as well.

Locally, students can write a letter or create artwork to send to a local nursing home or hospital.  Nationally, students can donate to organizations such as The Make-a-Wish Foundation.  If students decide to raise funds to support a child facing a terminal illness, for example, their fundraising efforts can also be tied to compassion in some way.

In any case, there are a variety of avenues that your students can discuss. Directly involving students will always have a deeper impact than anything else.

Read a variety of books:

The quality and depth of the messages in children’s literature makes them ideal tools for helping children develop compassion more deeply.  There are so many fantastic picture books, biographies, and history books available.  A few of my favorite picture books are The Invisible Boy by Trudy Ludwig, The Name Jar by Yangsook Choi, Stick and Stone by Beth Ferry and Tom Lichtenheld, and Red: A Crayon’s Story by Michael Hall.  Each story presents relatable characters that face adversity in some way.  The opportunities for students to place themselves in the role of these characters can surely impact their level of compassion.

My new favorite nonfiction books by Brad Meltzer also have great potential for students to walk in someone else’s shoes.  The benefit of these books is that these are real people in history who faced adversity while also exhibiting great strength and courage.  Though I own the entire series, my favorites for teaching compassion are I am Rosa Parks, I am Helen Keller, I am Martin Luther King, Jr., and I am Jackie Robinson.  I can’t say enough positive things about these biographies, but will tell you that the infusion of humor, the interactive illustrations, and the child friendly dialogue make for a very entertaining read.  I laughed and cried in all of them… multiple times.

Following a class discussion about each book, you can:

  • Ask students to choose a character from the story (the character who faced adversity is always beneficial) and have the student take on the role of that character.  Write a letter from that character’s point of view about what it is like to face the challenge.
  • Ask students to take on the role of the character and write a journal entry.  Answer the following questions:  How do I feel?  Why?  If I could change one thing about my situation, what would it be?  How can I help myself when I face this type of challenge again?  Who can help me face this challenge or resolve my problem?
  • Ask students to jot down three compassionate responses to the character in the book.  Practicing compassion directly helps students develop the skills they need to respond compassionately in real life situations.

If you’d like to dive deeper with these titles, you can find literature companions for all of these books here.

Analyze Quotes:

Analyzing quotes in text, literature, and in history is an effective way to get students to reflect on compassion.  Pulling quotes from the literature they read in class is one effective strategy for students to make connections.  It is also beneficial for students to analyze famous quotes from influential thinkers in our history.  I’ve created an entire bundle of quotes products that are tied to different character traits and just happen to have one for compassion.  Guess what?  It’s your lucky day!  I’ve decided to provide this full product for FREE!  If you haven’t subscribed to my resource library, you can do it here.  There are no strings…. you really just get it all for free.

Please note: The password will come to your email after you subscribe.   More products will be added to this resource library periodically (and the password will also change sometimes) so be sure to read all emails from me.

I would love to hear about all the ways you infuse compassion instruction in your classroom!  Which resources are most effective for you?  Jot a note in the comments to share your expertise!

You may also be interested in these posts:

Positive Messages for Students That Truly Pack a Punch

Promoting a Culture of Kindness in the Classroom with Free Activities

The Top 4 Ways to Foster Grit in the Classroom

       Kindness Activities and Ideas for Kids

I am Kirsten Tulsian, an elementary educator with 18 years of experience as a teacher and counselor. My passion lies in empowering students to discover their inherent brilliance through the use of engaging, rigorous, and meaningful activities. I look forward to connecting with you!

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