Bullying: How to Foster Empathy

Despite the intense pressure in public education for students to perform well on standardized tests, there is no research evidence indicating that test scores lead to better overall outcomes for kids in adulthood. There is abundant evidence, on the other hand, that having good social skills results in positive outcomes for young people during their school years and throughout their lives (Winner, 2013). Integrating SEL into standard school curricula, from the earliest years through high school graduation is a proven way to fortify kids with the skills they need to cope with bullying and to thrive in all of their interpersonal interactions.


Empathy is the ability to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes—to understand how another person is thinking and feeling in a particular situation. In the world of bullying prevention, empathy is an important skill to develop in young people because kids who bully often get caught up in the social rewards they receive from their behavior (e.g., a sense of power and control over others, increased peer attention, greater social status) and lose touch with the hurtful impact their aggression has on their victims. SEL programming focused on empathy development plays a preventative role in bullying because it teaches kids to feel for each other in very human ways, rather than to view peers as pawns in a popularity game. Effective empathy development activities guide young people to be consistently mindful of how others are thinking and feeling.

Bullying Prevention Ideas for Kids

One particularly powerful empathy-building activity, simple to deliver and instantly applicable for kids of all ages, is this one, popular around the Internet and generally attributed to a wise but unnamed educator:

  • A teacher in New York was teaching her class about bullying and gave them an exercise to perform. She had the children take a piece of paper and told them to crumple it up, stomp on it, and really mess it up but not to rip it. Next, she had them unfold the paper, smooth it out, and look at how scarred and dirty it was. Then, she told them to apologize to the paper. The teacher pointed out that even though the kids said they were sorry and tried to fix the paper, the scars remained. She explained to her students that those scars would never go away completely, no matter how hard they tried to fix it. “That is what happens,” she said, “when a child bullies another child; they may say they’re sorry but the scars are there forever.” The looks on the faces of the children in the classroom told her the message hit home.

While the internet version of this activity ends here, an empowering follow up is to challenge kids to brainstorm a list of realistic actions they can take to support a person in the aftermath of a bullying incident. Specific examples of before, during, and after-the-fact interventions for bystanders are provided in Key 6. The message for adults to emphasize is that while words wound—and some scars do endure—a young person’s empathic act of kindness and demonstration of support does have the power to heal. Other effective, engaging, and easy-to-implement empathy-building exercises encourage kids to assume multiple points of view on a single situation.

  • For younger kids, develop realistic role-plays in which a child first has to take on the needs and wants of one character and then, without warning, is assigned to switch roles and plead the case of the character he had just been opposing. Follow up with questions that encourage the child to reflect on how she felt playing each role and how the process of switching roles helped her better understand each character’s point of view.
  • For older kids, learning the skills of debate not only look good on a college application but can also be tremendously useful in teaching kids to look deeply at both sides of a situation. Good SEL programming often integrates academic lessons with social ones.

Last, activities that teach kids skills for effective listening are a key part of empathy development. It is only by learning how to listen to others that kids (and adults) get an accurate window into another human being’s worldview.

  • Hearing versus listening: What’s the difference? Even though hearing is one of the basic five senses, actual listening does not come naturally to most people. Begin this activity by engaging kids in a conversation about the differences between the passive act of hearing and the active process of listening. Ask questions such as these:
    • What is the difference between hearing and listening?
    • How do you show, in terms of your behaviors, that you are truly listening to someone?
    • How does it make you feel when you know that a person can hear your words but is not really listening to what you are saying?
    • Can you share an example of a time this occurred? What did you do in the situation? Did you continue to talk? Did you stop talking? Did you say anything to the person about how they made you feel? Why or why not?
    • If you are talking, and someone jumps in right away to share her point of view, do you feel you have been truly listened to? Why or why not?

Allow kids ample time to explore the differences between hearing and listening, then follow up the discussion with this activity:

  • Assign kids to work in pairs. Assign the roles of Person A and Person B.
  • Tell all of the Person As in the group to spend one full minute telling their partner, Person B, a story. (The story can be about anything—a made-up story or a real-life event. The main point is for Person A to talk for a full minute.)
  • In this first round, Person B should be assigned to use poor listening behavior in response to the partner. The adult may offer specific suggestions (e.g., poor eye contact, interrupting, texting on a cell phone) or challenge Person B to come up with his or her own inattentive listening behaviors.
  • After the minute is over, lead a discussion about how both Person A and Person B felt during the round. For example:
    • What did it feel like to talk to Person B?
    • How did you know Person B was not listening to you?
    • Did you want to stop talking before the minute was up?
    • Did you feel like Person B cared about you?
    • How did it make you feel about Person B?
    • How did it feel to be so inattentive to Person A?
  • Next, assign a second minute of talking. This time, Person B should do the talking, while Person A uses good listening behaviors (e.g., good eye contact, nodding, leaning in).
  • Follow up with a discussion about how the good listening behaviors made each person feel.
    • What did it feel like to talk to Person A?
    • What were the behaviors that showed good listening?
    • How did good listening make you feel?
    • How did it make you feel about Person A?
    • How did it feel to be so attentive to Person B?
    • Did listening well help you understand Person B in a new way?

Conclude the activity with a summary discussion about the positive impact that effective listening has on a relationship with an emphasis on what an active process good listening is. Connect the skill of making a person feel listened to with the skill of empathy and making a person feel understood.

Signe Whitson, a licensed social worker, school counselor, and author, is COO of the Life Space Crisis Intervention Institute and presents workshops nationwide for parents and professionals on bullying prevention and helping kids manage anger.

This post is an excerpt from Signe Whitson’s book, 8 Keys to End Bullying: Strategies for Parents & Schools (W. W. Norton, May 2014).

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