Teaching Empathy on the Playground

Empathy is arguably the most important life skill our kids can learn. But with so much content to cover, it can be hard for teachers to give soft skills like empathy the class time they deserve. At John F. Kennedy Elementary School in Daly City, CA, instead of starting in the classroom, we started at recess.


Recess is where students have the most freedom to practice empathy . . . or not. As a principal, I’ve seen students fight over space on the blacktop, space in line, and even over friends..


We can’t take empathy for granted, but it can be taught.
Kids often default to aggression and territoriality, especially if they have experienced trauma. Empathy requires practice, but it can be learned!…


Kids learn empathy best from peers.
The most successful approach was having kids see empathetic behavior as the norm among respected 4th and 5th graders…

Adults need to practice empathy, too.
In our previous playground environment, playground staff had each class start recess by sitting in line and listening to rules….



By Matthew Harris, Principal, John F. Kennedy Elementary School