The promise, some pitfalls, and how to practise EMPATHY

Empathy is our theme for this year and a core focus of humane education. Empathy has been shown to improve communication skills, prosocial behaviours like cooperating, sharing, and helping and reduce bullying. But empathy is complicated as we don’t always apply it equitably to people or animals.  This blog dives into the different dimensions of empathy, some of the short falls and how to overcome them through fostering empathy in the classroom.

What is exactly is empathy?

Empathy most simply put, involves “understanding, sharing, and caring about the emotions of others.”1 It’s a general term that describes different ways people respond to one another and involves both the affective and cognitive areas of the brain.2

Affective empathy or emotional empathy is sharing feelings with others. It is hardwired into the brains of people and is seen throughout the animal kingdom. When you see someone upset, you might instantly feel upset too through the vicarious sharing of emotions. Affective empathy is seen in toddlers, dolphins, prairie voles, chickens and many other primarily social animals.3,4

Cognitive empathy or perspective taking has a separate neural pathway and involves understanding another’s internal states.2 If you see a friend who is upset because his cat died, you can imagine what he might be thinking and feeling. This mentalizing of other’s internal thoughts and feelings is more complex than affective empathy and is not found throughout the animal kingdom5. Cognitive empathy is a skill that is learned as an individual develops their theory of mind and helps with predicting the emotions of others, including animals6.

Both the cognitive and affective domains work together to elicit an empathetic response or compassion.1 Compassion is motivational – it spurs us to take to help others. This might be helping an injured or scared animal, or providing support to a grieving friend. This empathetic response is crucial to social species like ours – we rely on others for help to survive.

The problem with empathy:

Empathy comes to us more naturally for people and animals who we are more familiar with and similar to.7 It is much easier to empathize with a close friend or family member than with a stranger or someone who supports a political ideology that is different from our own.5 The same is true with animals, it might be easier to empathize with a dog, a mammal that people tend to be familiar with, than with a fish or snake. These biases that lead to discrepancies in our empathetic responses that can cause harm from discrimination towards groups of people to poorer welfare outcomes for animals we have difficulty relating to. However, by practising empathy– through exercises that have us consider the thoughts and feelings of others – especially those who we may struggle to empathize with, is key to treating all living things with respect and compassion. 

Practising Empathy in the Classroom:

Encourage perspective taking: Empathy is a skill and something we can practise and get better at. Promoting consideration, care and perspective taking can be woven into all subject areas. Our character education empathy resources include discussion questions and cross-curricular activities that encourage perspective taking and challenge how we think and feel about others. Activities span from reading body language and predicting emotion to creating art from the perspective of an animal.

Storytelling: Research has shown that the use of good literature can promote social-emotional learning including empathy development.8,9 Stories allows us to step into the shoes of the characters and see the world from their perspective. Stories also give us an opportunity to consider the values and actions of the characters and reflect on our own morals and decision making. To reinforce thinking critically about stories, engage students in reflection, discussion and analysis. To assist teachers, we have created the AnimalTales book program, designed to promote empathy through stories, discussion and activities. The program is free and available from Alberta teachers from kindergarten to grade 6 – visit our website to learn more and request the program. Our website also has animal-themed book recommendations and resources that foster critical thinking and awareness and encourage students to consider the perspectives of all characters including animals.

Model it: We become better models for empathy when we practise empathy ourselves. Through conscious effort we can flex our empathy muscles a little more – it’s a skill that can be refined and strengthened. We can strive to engage in more perspective taking within our families, with colleagues and most importantly, with people we don’t know or may not agree with.

Empathy encourages understanding and builds bridges and we need more of it for a kinder more compassionate society.



  1. Depow, G. J., Francis, Z., & Inzlicht, M. (2020). The experience of empathy in everyday life. Psychological Science, 1–43.
  2. Berliner, R., & Masterson, T. L. (2015). Review of research: Promoting development in the early childhood and elementary classroom. Childhood Education, 91(1), 57–64.
  3. Woolrych, T., Eady, M. J., & Green, C. A. (2020). Authentic Empathy: A Cultural Basis for the Development of Empathy in Children. Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 1–20.
  4. Edgar, J.L., Lowe, J.C., Paul, E.S., Nicol, C.J. (2011). Avian maternal response to chick distress. Proceedings of the Royal Society B 278, 3129-3134
  5. Zaki, J. (2019). The War for Kindness: Building empathy in a fractured world. Broadway Books.
  6. Young, A., Khalil, K. A., & Wharton, J. (2018). Empathy for animals: A review of the existing literature. Curator: The Museum Journal, 61(2), 327–343.
  7. Mather, J. (2019). Ethics and Care: For Animals, Not Just Mammals) Animals9(12), 1018; https://org/10.3390/ani9121018
  8. Almerico, G.M. (2014). Building Character Through Literacy with Children’s Literature. Research in Higher Education
  9. Wolk, S. (2009). “Reading for the World,” Educational Leadership

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