3 Steps to Teach Empathy to Kids with Books

teach empathy to kids

When you teach empathy to kids, you solve a host of other problems.

Have you ever wondered how to get kids to share? How to get them to be kind to one another? How to stop bullying? The missing character trait here is empathy. So the next question is how to help kids develop empathy and what do books have to do with it?

  1. Teach empathy by choosing the right books
  2. Teach empathy by asking questions
  3. Teach empathy by stepping into the characters’ shoes

Teach Empathy to Kids by Choosing the Right Books

I wrote an article with a book list about How Stories Develop Empathy in Kids.

In that post I talk about how stories we tell kids today have changed from when I was a child. I’m not saying all change is bad, but I wonder if we’re robbing kids today of the chance to develop real compassion and empathy because our stories are tamed down.

Among stories written in this century, I recommend the books of R. J. Palacio about Auggie who has a facial deformity. These books are characterized by realistic struggles with emotional pain.

Wonder is written for school aged kids and We’re All Wonders for preschoolers.

Note: Book cover picture is an Amazon affiliate link. Clicking through to purchase benefits this site.

Teach Empathy to Kids by Asking Questions

Michele Borba wrote the book Unselfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World. In it, she outlines three steps to interact with stories to teach kids empathy. 

Step 1: Ask “What if.” 

Stop reading occasionally to pose questions. What if that happened to you? What if you had to decide?    

Give kids a chance to stop and think about what it’s like to be that character.                                   

Step 2: Ask “How would you feel?” 

An important task here is teaching emotional literacy. Help kids learn a vocabulary for emotions. 

Start with basics like happy and sad, and move on to more complex emotions like frustrated, angry, excited and afraid. 

When reading picture books, point out body language and facial expressions. 

Identify what the character is feeling and relate that to feelings they’ve had. 

Step 3: Ask them to think about “you” instead of “me.”

A critical step in teaching empathy is the shift in focus from self-centered to other-centered. 

It’s natural to think about ourselves, our thoughts, needs and feelings. It takes effort (maybe even supernatural help!) to think about others. 

Note: Book cover picture is an Amazon affiliate link. Clicking through to purchase benefits this site.

Teach Empathy to Kids by Stepping into the Characters’ Shoes

Kids are concrete and literal learners. It helps to have a visual and tactile object lesson to drive home a lesson. 

In Michele Borba’s book she shares the example of a mom in Liverpool who helped her kids step into the shoes—literally— of the characters from Charlotte’s Web

She wrote the names of the characters— Wilbur, Charlotte, Fern and Templeton— on sticky notes and put them on her husband’s shoes. The kids loved standing in each shoe and describing what that character was thinking and feeling. 

Looking for great lists of chapter books for kids? Browse these lists– Books Like Hatchet and Books Like The Penderwicks.

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