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How to foster youth empathy

By Rebecca Meyer

Lots of recent events have me wondering how to encourage and foster empathy. Empathy is when one person is able to understand how another person is feeling. This sense of understanding is not something we are born with, it is a skill that we learn. The ability to empathize is critical because it allows us to understand other people. It's an opportunity to show caring and compassion; one of the 5 C's of positive youth development. And, it's an essential skill for creating an inclusive world.

We as youth workers have an important role play. We can facilitate strategies to develop and nurture empathy in young people. Embedded in hands-on experiential learning processes, the following strategies can help support development of empathy in youth:

  1. Story-sharing. Read together! This can be a great discussion and reflection-starter. Here’s a list of books to help start conversations.
  2. Help youth talk to other youth outside their usual circle.
  3. Play games. Help youth discover commonalities among the group.
  4. Role-play. Create a safe place where youth can explore being someone different.

It's important to discuss and process these experiences. These strategies set the stage for experiential learning beginning with the “doing” phase (the experience), however it’s as important to insure youth “reflect” to deepen their learning, and then “apply” this beyond the experience.

If you are looking for a curriculum to explore this topic more in-depth, WeConnect, written by my colleagues in Minnesota, is one that facilitates youth understanding as participants in a global society "inspiring a sense of understanding and confidence in relating and connecting to other people."

What strategies have you used to support development of empathy? What kinds of questions spark conversations about it?

--Rebecca Meyer, Extension educator

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  1. Becky,

    I think this topic is very important, especially with some of the issues going on in our country right now. It got me thinking about the use of "I'm sorry". I know most youth don't fully understand what these words mean and when it's appropriate to use them. I recall as a teacher trying to help many students work through conflict and many would blurt out sorry with an angry tone. It's as if they learned saying sorry was the statement that freed them from guilt and consequence. Rather than teaching youth to default to simply saying "I'm sorry", I try to explain how someone is feeling or encourage them to speak outwardly about how they are feeling. And I think modeling listening and compassion are equally important.

    1. Thank you for commenting Kyra. I appreciate you sharing the importance of processing the experience with youth. Allowing each person to speak how they are feeling and helping each to develop understanding for one another in their differences is critical.

  2. Yes, what a timely topic! I think youth development professionals have a variety of items in our tool box that help develop empathy, most of which can be grouped in the categories you've created. Two that I would add are group selection and role modeling.

    I'm working with a group of middle school youth and it's been a challenge to get them to empathize. While I try to give them choice in how they split into groups, I often find the group dynamics are improved when I can split up those that have a greater capacity for empathy and those that don’t. And while I can role model empathy, I also call out how specific behaviors (often related to empathy) are helping their group.

    Although I can't say I'm asking questions to uncover empathy, I do see it come out when I'm asking questions about how their group worked and where their group struggled.

    1. Thank you, Margo. Role modeling, as both you and Kyra identified, is so important. Thank you for bringing attention to our own practice of how we engage and interact as facilitators of these experiences. And thank you for offering the tool of intentionally thinking about group dynamics to aid the development of fostering empathy.

      Do others have other strategies or tools you have employed to foster empathy or spark discussions?

  3. I'm having a brief discussion tomorrow with some volunteers and leaders and the essential question is "how do you teach empathy?" Thank you for writing this - right when I need it.

    I think a good start is illustrating the difference between sympathy and empathy as I think many people (including myself) mistake them as the same thing...

    I'll keep you posted how the discussion tomorrow goes.


    1. Thank you, Joshua. Yes, please do share what you learn in your discussions. I agree understanding the differences between empathy and sympathy is important. Thank you for noting that nuance.


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