Empathy – Do we need to teach it?

In Alberta’s most recent ministerial order on student learning, the government identified fundamental learning goals for students to ensure a prosperous and positive future for our province. We need to aim to “inspire all students to achieve success and fulfillment” and to reach their full potential by being “engaged thinkers and ethical citizens with an entrepreneurial spirit.”

What exactly is an ethical citizen?

According to the Ministerial Order on Student Learning – May 6, 2013

“WHEREAS an Ethical Citizen …

sees beyond self interests to the needs of the community; … as a steward of the earth, minimizes environmental impacts;…demonstrates respect, empathy and compassion for all people.”

To achieve success now and in the future, we need students to see beyond themselves to the needs of others, to take responsibility for the environment and to demonstrate respect, empathy and compassion. In the Alberta Program of Studies, these goals are not clearly articulated in any grade level or subject area. So when and where do we teach them? And more importantly, how?

Humane Education:

By taking an approach to teaching that inspires compassion for all living things, we help students become ethical citizens by fostering respect, compassion and empathy in the classroom. This approach requires that teachers model desired behaviour, encourage critical thinking, promote responsibility, and have open discussions on issues across subject areas and at all grade levels.

How to build empathy and compassion:

Empathy and compassion are not just innate qualities; they can be developed, and simply being kind is a great way to start. According to a 2012 study from the University of California, youth that engage in kind acts were not only happier but also benefited from the increase in academic achievement and social acceptance that goes along with pro-social behaviour. Authors of this study suggest that teachers can build on this work by introducing intentional pro-social activities (regular and purposeful kind acts) into the classroom.

To help you encourage pro-social behaviour in your classroom, we created a ‘Practicing Empathy Together’ Pledge. Classes participate by committing to do a certain number of kind acts within a given period of time (and classes that let us know how it goes will be added to the Kindness Map). We’ve included some kindness checklists and discussion questions that will encourage students to critically think about the impact that they are making not only in the class, but in their school and community. By being kind and reflecting on it, we can help to develop empathy, creating happier students, kinder classrooms and ultimately more ethical citizens.


Aknin LB, Hamlin JK, Dunn EW “Giving Leads to Happiness in Young Children” PLoS ONE. 14 June 2012. Web Sept 2014

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