Is Teaching Kids Empathy Just as Important as Teaching Them Math? 

A conversation with Joan Cole Duffell on social-emotional development.


Let’s use empathy as an example. How do you teach kids that skill?

To really help children acquire empathy, we start with the very building blocks of empathy. One of the first things people need to learn is how to decode facial expression in other people. That’s not empathy, but it’s one of the important steps toward it.


So let’s say in kindergarten, the teacher has a big lesson card, and on the front of that card is a picture of a child’s face at their age level, and on the back is everything the teacher needs to conduct that lesson


. So the teacher is holding up the picture in front of the kids and following the lesson on the back of that card. And the kids are looking at this child’s facial expression and the lesson is for them to guess how that child might be feeling by looking at their expression. And it’s very specific because if the kids say, “Well, Jamal looks really happy,” the teacher would say: “How can you tell? What is it about Jamal’s face that tells you he’s looking happy?” There’s a lot of learning around what a smile looks like.