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Inspiring Empathy, Compassion and Kindness

by Barbara Gruener

Ah, empathy, that glorious opportunity that invites us to step into someone else’s story, to imagine how they’re feeling, and to feel with them. My favorite way to understand empathy comes from author and researcher Brené Brown in her bestseller, Dare To Lead: Empathy is a strange and powerful thing. There is no script. There is no right or wrong way to do it. It’s simply listening, holding space, emotionally connecting, and communicating that healing message that ‘You’re not alone.’

One of my earliest empathy experiences happened when I was about twelve. My sister and I noticed and were drawn to these young girls, Angie and Amy, in church. We’d look for them every Sunday and secretly hoped to one day be able to babysit with them. We loved to make them smile, giggle, and laugh.

Then the unthinkable happened; their father was killed in a car accident. Unable to even imagine life without a dad, my sister and I felt overwhelmed for our little friends.

We wanted them to know that they were not alone, but we weren’t exactly sure how to comfort them. Feeling the strong pull of compassion to do something, we decided (with the help of our mom, I'm sure!) to invite them over and give them our treasured dolls.

Now, before you conjure up a picture of something fancy like American Girl Dolls, picture instead two, decade-old dolls from back in 1973 that had already been very well-loved. Their coolest feature was that their eyelids actually blinked when we laid them down for naps in the bunkbeds our dad had made for them. No super fancy but they were super special to us.

Anyway, we wrapped our dolls in their blankets, we invited these young sisters and their mom to our house, and we said good-bye to our babies as we introduced them to their new moms. It’s an empathy moment that I won’t ever forget.

Flash forward almost fifty years, and you might imagine that my eyes instantly filled with tears as joy overcame me to reunite with little Angie, all grown up now, at church a bit before Covid kept us all safely stuck at home. When she realized who I was, Angie wrapped me in a loving embrace, shared that she still remembers coming to our house to get those dolls, and told me that she and Amy played with them all of the time. As she thanked me for our thoughtfulness during those difficult days, my heart was beating so fast that I imagined it could shatter into small, shiny shards like the stunning stained glass that shimmered behind her in the sanctuary.

Later in the day, Angie texted this picture from her mom’s place to show me that, almost half of a century later, she still has those dolls.

Her mom said to tell me that our kindness will never be forgotten.

Empathy empowers us to do unforgettable things. Educational psychologist and author of UnSelfie, Dr. Michele Borba tells us that we are wired for empathy, but she’s quick to add that dormant empathy does no good. It’s empathy that actually gives kindness its why. Why did we wrap our precious baby dolls up and give them away? Not because someone told us to be kind, but because we switched places with Angie and Amy, we walked for a while in their shoes, we imagined what it would feel like to be them. We felt compassion, and it fueled our desire to serve, by sharing what we had on the chance that it might alleviate their suffering, even if just a little bit.

Head. Heart. Hands. That’s the empathy trifecta.

Psychologists Daniel Goleman and Paul Ekman have explained the three kinds of empathy like this: Cognitive empathy is about working to understand the thoughts and feelings underneath another’s experiences. This is also where we find perspective-taking. Emotional empathy is about imagining ourselves in a similar situation and embracing someone else’s feelings around that experience. Compassionate empathy creates a beautiful balance between the cognitive (head) and the affective (heart) even as it looks for an opportunity to help (hands), not to fix but rather to comfort, to care, and to help heal.

Since a skill this important simply cannot be left to chance, let’s look at three ways that we can elevate empathy.

  1. Build emotional literacy. If we can’t identify and own our own emotions, it’s not likely that we’ll be able to identify or recognize what others are feeling. Start by modeling emotional regulation yourself and by pointing out what other people are feeling: I feel really confused right now. That man looks like he’s sad. Doesn’t that little girl look scared? That little boy looks really happy, doesn’t he? Providing opportunities to practice reading and navigating emotions will help children get comfortable with all of their feelings so that they’ll be ready to recognize and understand those feelings in their classmates and friends. Consider assigning a Feelings Friend of the Day as a classroom job. Let your students take turns leading the daily check-in to get an emotional barometer, then encourage that leader to be on the lookout for anyone who might want or need help with big, uncomfortable, or hard-to-handle feelings throughout the day. Click {here} for another post about that.

  2. Read fictional stories. Research suggests that reading fiction can elevate empathy. As you read together, teach them to listen with their whole hearts. Pause periodically to ask what a certain character is thinking and/or how they are feeling. Invite them to share how they can tell, to open up a dialogue about body language, facial expressions, word choice, tone, and more. What might that character want? What might they need? What might you want or need if you were in their situation? If you’re not sure, how could you find out?

  3. Model kindness and generosity. If we want to raise kind kids, it’s not enough to just tell them to be kind. We need to show them how to be kind. Even when it’s not convenient, or maybe especially then. How are you living generously? Who needs your help in your community? Teachers: Invite your students to research needs and how they might help. Let them share their research, then invite them to vote on whom you’d like to help as a class this year. Find ways to weave their service project goals into content that you’re already covering. Parents: Take your children along next time you go to volunteer. Encourage them to watch for how the recipients of your kindness feel. Kindness creates a win-win because we can get a helper’s high not only from helping but also from witnessing kind acts. Next time you’re baking, how about doubling the batch and asking your children whom you might share your bounty with; nothing spells love quite like some freshly-baked kindness from your kitchen.

More than ever before, this school year will bring many opportunities to practice the three kinds of empathy as we return to school either virtually or face to face and work with intention to understand all of the feelings around where we’ve been, where we are now, and where we’re going.




Thank you for your commitment to holding and shaping the hearts of our future. Look for and seize every single opportunity to inspire empathy, compassion, and kindness as you boldly take on 2020-2021 and make it a one-of-a-kind year that, like those dolls, won’t ever be forgotten.

Barbara Gruener

Twitter handle: @BarbaraGruener



About the author: Barbara Gruener is a nationally-recognized school counselor, speaker, and character coach who has had the pleasure of working with and growing alongside learners from every grade level during her 36 years as an educator. Author of the book What’s Under Your Cape? SUPERHEROES of the Character Kind and co-author of the Virtual Classroom Survival Guide eBook, Barbara works passionately to influence school climate change while fostering healthy habits and caring connections among school families and their stakeholders. In addition to spending time with her family and friends, Barbara loves inspiring people to savor being in the moment as they unwrap the present with gratitude and hope.

Our 2021 EduMatch picture book, Mr. Quigley’s Keys, shares the story of an unsung hero, the beloved handyman at Barnes Elementary, and invites our readers to walk for a spell in his shoes while they feel the admiration that the students have for him and his keys to connection, like empathy, compassion, and kindness, that he quietly models. Find out what happens as they work with intention to plan a surprise celebration for their faithful fix-it friend … with a couple of key twists.

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