Activity to Teach Empathy and Bring Students Joy4 min read

Last week my first grader came home wearing a huge grin. My son, Jack, was made ‘star of the week’ in his class, which gave him a few special privileges throughout the week. He got to be line-leader, bring in family pictures to share with the class, and a few other things to make him feel special. However, the huge grin came from an activity on Friday. As a class culture writing activity, Jack’s teacher had all of the students in the class write something they like about Jack. They then compiled all of the comments in a letter, along with pictures students drew of Jack, and the teacher read the letter aloud.

This brought my son immense joy.

My wife and I do our very best affirm Jack every day, and his incredible teacher does as well. However, this type of affirmation does not always come from his peers. When we read the letter again at home, and watched Jack listen to how his classmates think he is kind, fun to play with, comes up with great ideas, good at soccer, and smart, we observed him sit a little taller in his seat. This simple writing activity did more than fill his 6 year-old ego; it did something for his spirit. It reenforced what we always tell him. It gave him confidence. It made him feel loved.

Create practices to teach students how to affirm each other.

There is a certain power that comes from giving and receiving affirmations from our peers. Obviously receiving it affects our confidence and self-worth. However, giving it has a tremendous impact as well. The students in Jack’s class had to exercise their ’empathy muscles’ for this assignment. They had to reflect on someone else and put their thoughts into words. The teacher has Jack’s class do this activity every week. Every single week, students in that class are asked to think deeply and personally about others. This creates a habit, a regular practice in affirming others.

This impacts class culture.

Students aren’t just affirming their friends. Every student is affirming everyone. At least once, every students is receiving affirmations from their peers. Whether two students get along or not, the activity asks them to consider something they like about the other. There is a humanizing aspect to this affirmation activity. This helps form a class culture built on kindness and empathy. This forms a camaraderie that can have an impact way beyond a single writing activity.

This activity can work for any grade-level.

Sharing and receiving affirmations doesn’t just have to be a practice in elementary classrooms. Any grade level teacher can ask their students to do this exact activity. I know with middle or high school students, it may be awkward at first asking them to be vulnerable in this way. However, that’s because it hasn’t been practiced before. Whether it’s a first grade class or a class full of high school seniors, all students can develop a habit of giving affirmations. This will impact the students who are learning to find the positives in each other, the teacher who can thrive in a healthier classroom culture, and kids like my son who are reminded that he is loved and valued by his peers.

Discover more ways to connect with students and thrive during pandemic teaching with my new online course, “How to Thrive as a Virtual Teacher.”

Trevor Muir

I believe every student has the potential for greatness. And I believe every educator can be equipped to unlock that potential.