The why and the how of instilling compassion in your students.


A person’s youth is a critical time for development of every sort: intellectual, emotional, social, and more. If a purpose of a child’s education is to prepare him or her for their future life, it begs the question: what kind of adults do we want our students to grow up to become? Yes, we need them to be armed with the skills necessary for a successful career. But most of us also imagine that our future thinkers and leaders will be kind, caring, thoughtful, helpful, and compassionate adults. But how do we, and can we, teach the emotional skill of compassion?

The science says yes, we certainly can teach compassion. Genetic twin studies suggest that anywhere from a quarter to more than half of our inclination to be caring and compassionate is inherited*. In other words, it’s not all nature—there is a lot of room for nurture in the compassion story.

Which brings us to the “how”. As a teacher, you can help shape the development of kindness in your kids by implementing service learning strategies in your classroom.

Here are three you can employ to help your students develop their “compassion muscle”.

Encourage small, local acts of kindness at school.

Give your students opportunities to help each other. They may not seek out such opportunities (at least at first) on their own. So encourage your students to act kindly by providing the opportunities for them.

For example, you might organize cooperative learning groups, and remind your students that helping one other is a responsibility of those working in the group. Studies show that engaging in cooperative learning arrangements encourages children to treat each other with kindness more often.

Another compassion tactic is to instate a “random acts of kindness” program for your students. Assign every participant a secret “kindness friend” for whom the student does kind things throughout the program. Then, when complete, reveal whose friend was whose. When teachers participate too, it gives them the opportunity to model kindness for their students—which studies show is more effective than speaking about the value of compassion.

Very quickly, most students realize—and you can point out—how small acts of kindness make a difference, and add up.

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Formally recognize a child’s compassionate acts.

For a child, few things match the satisfaction of having positive results recognized. Like they’re proud of a paper or test full of checkmarks, they appreciate when their demonstrated compassion is recognized too. So, as a teacher, think about making an effort to recognize when they’ve made a positive change in their local environment. For example, keep a tally of every student’s volunteer hours. Less formally, encourage your students to write their own stories about what it was like to help others in their community or school. And, when you encourage your kids to be part of a fundraising event, they can account for the amount of good there doing by tracking the funds they help bring in grow.


Expose kids to acts of compassion.

Unfortunately, our instinctive desire is often to protect kids from instances of suffering. But by doing this, we lose a critical learning opportunity. When we actively expose students to the needs of others, we encourage them to learn and experience empathy. When we provide kids with opportunities to feel compassion, they learn to become compassionate. When you tell your students stories that demonstrate compassion, or when your students watch videos about giving, they learn the tools for being a more giving—and empathetic—person themselves. We normalize the idea of working to help others when we involve students in, and make them witness to, the expression of compassion.

In practice in the classroom, you can work to connect your curriculum with societal issues like hunger, poverty and access to education. Becoming a WE School is one simple way to do this; the program challenges students to identify the local and global issues that spark their passion and empowers them with the tools to take action. By getting kids involved in the needs of others around the world, you inspire them to imagine how they can make an impact in their own world.

A final thought: Research shows that compassionate kids are happier, emotionally connected, and have more friends. And of all WE Schools students, 82% say they value their education more than they used to, and 89% of disconnected students said they became motivated to go on to college or university. Put another way, when kids learn compassion, it not only leads to them helping others—it serves the student, too. A pretty big win-win for an entire generation.

For more information about WE Schools programming or to sign up for free educational resources and action campaign ideas that pair academic learning with teaching compassion, please visit here.