Teaching Empathy to Prevent Bullying

Group of high school boys bullying another student

Credit: wikimedia

Sticks and stones may break my bones,
But names will never harm me.

-- English proverb

Sticks and Stones: Verbal Bullying is Harmful

You’ve heard this adage before. For generations, parents have said this when their children complained about being called names by their peers. It’s a singsong response to emphasize one point to children - words don’t hurt, so don’t let it bother you. If the other kid didn’t kick or punch you, there’s no reason to complain. And maybe there wasn’t, if the name-calling only happened a few times, if it wasn’t a frequent occurrence, it wasn’t bullying.

Recurrent Name-Calling is Bullying

Yet, for far too many children (roughly 20% of school-age children) name-calling or other forms of bullying are recurrent events. Being a target of bullying can affect everything from a child’s academic performance to their likelihood of experiencing depression. In fact, even verbal bullying can have significant effects on a person’s well-being well into adulthood.

That’s why it is so important for parents and teachers to take bullying seriously and respond appropriately when it occurs. Equally important, parents and schools must be actively engaged in preventing bullying in the first place. As of 2015, all fifty states have enacted anti-bullying laws that require schools to implement bullying prevention programs. Unfortunately, as some of the furor about bullying has abated over the last few years, bullying prevention efforts can slip to the back burner. They shouldn’t. With few resources to ensure that schools are following the mandate, it is often up to parents to advocate for rigorous bullying prevention programs.

Bullying is Caused by a Lack of Empathy

At its very core, bullying behavior stems from a lack of empathy, of understanding and knowing that other people feel emotions just as you do. It stems from failing to recognize that every single person, no matter what they look like, or how they talk, or if they have unusual habits, is as fully human as you. Therefore, one of the earliest, most important steps in preventing bullying is to teach the skill of empathy. Teaching empathy isn’t done by blithely saying to children, “Now, let’s everyone get along and play nice.” It’s done by purposefully, deliberately teaching it as a skill just as important as learning to read.

Teaching Empathy

Here is an example of an effective lesson on empathy. The lesson illustrates the effect of harmful words in a concrete manner, appropriate young children’s cognitive development.

The lesson starts with a large, red construction-paper heart. The heart is carefully made, neat, clean, and intact. The teacher explains that the heart represents how we feel when people treat us well- whole and happy.

The students then give examples of things we say that might makes someone’s heart feel this way such as:

  • “You’re really good at…”
  • “I like the way you….,”
  • “Come sit with me.”
  • “Let me help you.”

Next, the teacher asks students to do something which catches them off guard. The teacher asks student to say some things that would hurt someone’s feeling and to direct the comments to the paper heart. With some initial discomfort, students begin addressing the heart with the kinds of comments adults are constantly telling them not to say:

  • “You’re stupid.”
  • “Nobody likes you.”
  • “You’re so fat.”
  • “Those are ugly shoes.”

With each comment, the teacher begins to fold, crinkle, and tear the heart. “What’s happening to our heart?” the teacher will ask or, “How does this heart feel right now?”

The comments eventually stop and students gaze at the wreckage held in front of them. It is quiet until the teacher asks if there is any way to make the heart better.

“Hey! Come play with me!” “You’re really nice.” Others join in and, as they do, the teacher begins to unfold the heart. The teacher leads students to think about whether the heart is ever really the same after it’s been hurt. In those moments, it becomes apparent that while the heart can heal, damage remains. Students can see for themselves that the heart holds memories of the hurt it experienced.

The learning from this lesson can unfold in numerous ways. The next time an unkindness occurs in the classroom, the teacher can say, “How do you think this person’s heart feels right now? What will happen if they keep hearing those comments?” It’s not a stretch for most children to remember the red paper heart and change an unkind behavior.

This is an example of the kind social-emotional learning that needs to happen in schools to help children learn empathy and caring. This learning translates into less bullying and a better school environment for every child. It wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world if all our children learned that hearts can be as fragile as paper and need to be treated accordingly.


Bullying StatisticsPACER’s National Bullying Prevention Center

Dombeck, PH.D., Mark, “The Long Term Effects of BullyingMentalHealth.net September 2106
Student Reports of Bullying,” National Center for Education Statistics December 2016