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Social-Emotional Learning builds empathy in the classroom

/ Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad

social-emotional learning, sel
Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) is deeply important for all students and teachers. It is essential for human flourishing, positive relationships, teamwork, emotional maturity, empathy and fulfilling our collective potential for growth. It’s not enough to just say we are aligning our standards to SEL competencies or say that we have a positive behavior classroom model (although those are steps in the right direction). We must view SEL as a vehicle for meaningful learning and ongoing collaboration.

Educators today encourage students to share their voices, spread their ideas and develop communication skills through effective storytelling. However, in order to fully support student voices, we must develop the right conditions in which their voices can make an impact. 

social-emotional learning, selWhen a student shares their voice, listeners fully experience what it’s like to see the world from their perspective. This experience of feeling and understanding is empathy. Empathy is a skill that leads to better decision-making, considering others’ perspectives and worldviews. When social-emotional learning skills are truly supported and nurtured, tomorrow’s leaders can more successfully motivate and inspire others. This leads to collaboration and working towards common goals with trust and open, honest communication. 

Teachers often hear that the best way to connect with their students is to empathize. How can educators better encourage empathy between themselves, their students, and other groups of students? 

First, let's acknowledge that it can be a challenging endeavor to experience a deep sense of empathy, especially if one does not have similar experiences. Showing true empathy requires exploring why the person feels or experiences the world in their particular way. 

Empathy isn’t created by listeners guessing the speaker’s intent or imagining what it's like to be in someone else's shoes. In fact, empathy starts when listeners stop guessing at what’s on the mind of students and peers, and instead learn to actively listen.

Teachers can express empathy towards their students by asking students to share their thinking. When a student shares, they are expressing their understanding on an intellectual level as well as revealing in detail how they think and feel about a particular experience or concept. When student thinking is effectively shared and heard, teachers and fellow students are equipped with the information needed to join in on the student’s perspective.social-emotional learning, sel

Four steps to building empathy

There are four simple steps educators can employ to encourage active listening and build empathy among their students:

  1. Listen to the story the student is sharing.
  2. Paraphrase the story the student just shared.
  3. Receive confirmation from the student that the story has been perceived the way they intended.
  4. Allow the storyteller to reflect upon the listeners’ perspectives.

Here is an example activity that follows this protocol:

Active Listening Protocol

 Ask students to pair up:

1. The Storyteller has 3-5 minutes to share their story.  

      1. Story starters:
  • Because this happened this week at school, I want to change this next week…
  • My teacher or fellow students pushed my thinking in the following way…
  • This was something risky I tried and it worked…
  • I think I have this quality/characteristic because of this experience I’ve been through...

2. The Listener is silent until time is up. 

3. The Teacher will announce that time is up.

4. The Listener summarizes the storyteller’s message by restating the big idea and reflecting on the feelings they felt when hearing the story. 

a. “So, I heard you saying…” 

b. “This is what I understand to be your emotion about…”

5. The Storyteller gives feedback about how it felt to have the listener actively listen. 

  • “I felt like I had something important to share when you gave cues that you were listening to me.”
  • “I felt valued when you were focused on listening to my story.”

social-emotional learning, selTeacher creativity tip: 

Let’s suppose students are asked to tell a narrative story using video. The students are tasked with expressing a particular life experience. Before creating their video, it’s important for the storyteller to consider the variety of ways their story may be perceived. One way teachers can support this process is to have students first share their story verbally while others actively listen so that real-time feedback can be provided to the storyteller. Students can keep that feedback in mind as they move forward in creating their video. 


This protocol for active listening can be applied to stories told in-person and through video. The beauty of this framework is that it requires something from everyone involved: the audience is tasked with active listening and building empathy. At the same time, it’s also important for the storyteller to actively take in feedback as they become aware of their audience. This drives deeper collaboration and understanding through empathy. Active listening allows both the storyteller and the listener to develop a depth of understanding and provides a window of the storyteller’s values, levels of thinking, emotions, and presuppositions behind their experiences. Building deeper learning through meaningful experiences requires sensitivity, empathy, self-awareness, social awareness, and active listening. When learners work together in environments with SEL skills, collaboration and learning can be transformative.