What is empathy, and why is it important?

Empathy is the ability to see someone else’s point of view and understand or imagine what they might be feeling.

Contemporary researchers often differentiate between three types of empathy: Emotional empathy refers to the sensations and feelings we get in response to other people’s emotions. Cognitive empathy is sometimes referred to as “perspective taking,” and is a term used to describe our ability to identify and understand other people’s emotions. Compassionate empathy: moves beyond understanding and recognition towards acting.

The degree of empathy you have is determined by genetic factors, and experience. Empathy can be learned and developed. Some children with autism struggle to understand cognitive empathy and may require explicitly taught social skills to learn perspective taking. At the other end of the spectrum, children with autism feel affective empathy and cognitive empathy acutely and may shut down or distance themselves to avoid becoming psychologically drained or overwhelmed.

Why is empathy important? Empathy is a first step towards showing compassion. Compassion is unifying because it encourages joining and sharing. Compassion is also active, because it involves identifying feelings and thoughts in others and acting on that information. Empathy on an individual scale in children is important part of learning, building a sense of security and building relationships. If we can be compassionate towards others, it can lead towards developing compassion towards ourselves.


Why is it challenging to motivate children to develop and practice empathy?

The first reason is that empathy is a challenging skill to learn and apply, and developmentally, it becomes easier to think about and understand other perspectives as we become older, build experience, and cognitively engage with socially complex relationships and situations. The second reason is that it can be challenging to work at something difficult, for someone else, when as a child with autism, you may often feel not included and misunderstood.

What motivates children to learn empathy:

  • It promotes mental health – understanding feelings helps us to regulate our emotions and self-care
  • It helps children to adapt and cope with change
  • It can reduce stress levels
  • It encourages tolerance, acceptance, and inclusion because children become more aware of how to act with compassion
  • It can promote positive, and harmonious social relationships: when a group feels understood, appreciated, valued, and engaged – bullying is less likely to happen
  • Empathy prepares us for learning and for acquiring more complex social roles such as leadership.
  • It can help us to feel connected to others and our environment.

5 strategies for teaching empathy


What skills do children need to be able to learn empathy?

There are a range of strategies that can help children and adults to learn to develop and practice empathy. There are a few building blocks or key skills that children will need as a foundation for building empathy and compassion:

  • The ability to name a feeling, and to describe what it feels like. E.g., anger feels like my face is getting hot, I feel adrenaline or a rush, my heart beast faster, I clench my jaw or clench my fingers into a fist.
  • The skill to recognise common types of feelings that people experience E.g., I feel angry because I am hungry or tired, I’m stressed and feel like I can’t cope, I’m frustrated and don’t understand what is expected of me, I expected a situation to occur in a particular way and it was different from what I expected, experiencing hormonal changes, I can’t put my feelings into words.
  • The understanding that everyone has their own thoughts and feelings, and others have their own thoughts and feelings which are independent of your thoughts and feelings (this is called Theory of Mind).
  • Ideas about what may be a helpful response to typical situations: for example, if someone has fallen over in the playground you may offer to stay with them and ask another friend to go and get help from a teacher. Or if someone is cold, you could move a game that you’re playing from outside to inside where it is warmer or offer to get a jumper or coat.  

How do you feel?


How can we teach empathy?

After practicing the building blocks of identifying emotions, how they feel and typical situations where you may experience certain feelings, it’s important to help validate and accept your child’s feelings so they increase self-awareness and learn to understand their emotions.

  • Model how sharing feelings makes you feel. For example: that hug stopped me from thinking about my to do list and made me feel very happy. I missed out on spending time with my friends because I had to finish working on a project. I feel disappointed because I was really looking forward to catching up. I’m sure we can make plans to catch up again soon. I’m hopeful that we will see each other again soon and it is exciting to plan ahead.
  • Start to make connections between feelings, thoughts, and actions (behaviours). E.g., I think your brother is feeling sad, and a little angry because you took his book away from him before he finished reading it. How would you feel if he took something from you before you had finished with it?
  • Create opportunities to talk about feelings using your child’s special interests. Books and movies are great opportunities to talk actions and reactions. If your child has a special interest in characters, books, films, or music, create opportunities to talk about what feelings the characters are feeling, or what the lyrics in a song are trying to express.
  • Identify when your child shows empathy and positively reinforce that behaviour. Children may show empathy more than they realise, especially if they have younger family members. When a brother or sister falls and hurts themselves, they might give them a hug or get Mum and Dad. Take the time to acknowledge those actions and identify the emotions. E.g., It was kind of you to help your sister when she fell. You recognised that she may be hurt, and that she might need my care.
  • Identify when others show or fail show empathy. This needs to be done sensitively and again, books, movies and minor incidents that occur at home can provide plenty of opportunities to identify emotions and compassionate behaviour.

Strategies to teach empathy at any age


How to use Social Reflection to think of what you could do differently next time:

Social reflection is a process of looking critically at a situation and discussing what occurred, what actions took place and the outcome of that behaviour. Social reflection can be used with primary school aged children and is particularly useful for evaluating more complex social situations in secondary school aged children. The aim is to discuss what happened objectively, and then expanding to come up with a range of alternatives that could be used if your child finds themselves in a similar situation.

Situation: I was working in a group, on a school project, and no-one listened to my suggestions.
I became frustrated and angry; I burst into tears and ran out of the classroom.
Outcome: Our group project was not finished. The rest of the group were angry and frustrated too.

WICDD: What I Could Do Differently

  • Set some guidelines for taking turns to talk in the group
  • Appoint a group leader to help us stay on track and get the project finished
  • Listen to my group members and offer my contribution after they finished speaking
  • Calmly ask to contribute to what is being discussed
  • Excuse myself from the group, and get a drink of water, take a few calming breaths
  • Ask for help from a teacher
  • Think about how important what I wanted to say was to the task of finishing the project and see if I could contribute something else to make sure we completed the work on time.

Social Behaviour Mapping



  • Empathy is acknowledging someone else’s feelings, understanding their independent point of view, and feeling compassion to act in a way that is helpful.
  • Empathy is an important part of learning, building a sense of identity and security and building friendships.
  • Children need to be able to identify their feelings and talk about them to practice empathy.
  • We can teach empathy by modelling, identifying, and creating opportunities to observe and discuss empathy.
  • We can use a tool called Social Behavioural Mapping to help children to reflect on their behaviour, how it made them, and others feel, and what they could do differently next time.



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