We All Teach SEL: Empathy Activities and Tools for Students

Resources to help integrate empathy into every classroom, every day.

September 22, 2016
Danny Wagner Senior Editor, Education Ratings & Reviews
Common Sense Education

CATEGORIES In the Classroom, Technology Integration, Tools

Building SEL (social and emotional learning) skills such as empathy requires face-to-face interactions, meaningful discussion, and reflection. Edtech is no complete substitute for that, but there are tools that can supplement the development of character in the classroom and at home. According to the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley, empathy is:

the ability to sense other people's emotions, coupled with the ability to imagine what someone else might be thinking or feeling.

While some tools focus specifically on empathy, the websites and apps that you use daily (in all subjects) can be used to promote perspective taking, too. You don't have to stop using the tools you love or toss out your lesson or curricular plans to start developing SEL. Below we have included some tips, tools, and actionable ideas for seamlessly integrating empathy and life skills-building into your content classroom.  

Why Empathy?

Classrooms are complex, collaborative, and diverse spaces. An enriching, engaging, and supportive classroom environment is one in which students reflect on themselves and their peers as learners and as people, full of similarities and differences. A group culture that encourages trust and friendship -- that practices empathy -- functions better as a whole and can better tackle tough concepts. Some schools are recognizing how impactful empathy can be, like the one in Pennsylvania where students shared their deepest, most painful secrets before 500 of their peers. The leaders of this school believe that events like this -- free of criticism or judgment -- create openness and understanding rather than discord and isolation. It's through this cultivation of empathic students that schools become communities.

Take Action

  • Don't be afraid to tackle hard topics as a class -- get students thinking about their similarities and differences.
  • Set high expectations, and find opportunities to help students see how their feelings are connected to behavior.
  • Treat each student as an individual, and use a problem-solving approach when helping them overcome an obstacle.
  • Make sure the technology you use doesn't take the place of, but instead supplements, face-to-face interaction.
  • Using our Digital Citizenship Curriculum? Both our student interactives and lessons already foster key SEL skills.
  • Visit some other excellent SEL resources, including CASEL, Character Lab, Edutopia, and Ashoka.

Think about the digital tools you're already using in the classroom. Can you find a creative way to use them to model empathy? Check out our suggestions below!

Directly Target Empathy

See our Top Games That Teach Empathy list for more empathy-focused tools.

The Social Express II

The Social Express II app This animated app uses multimedia to boost social-awareness skills such as empathy. Each lesson lets students make decisions about character choices, putting them in their shoes and witnessing the consequences that unfold.


journey game A beautiful game that is less about what's happening on-screen and more about what's happening inside us. Journey takes complex concepts such as life, death, and partnership and weaves them into a metaphor for students to reflect on.









Build Empathy in All Subjects     


Activities and Tools for ELA Classrooms


pictello app Have students use this storytelling app to upload pictures, videos, and their voices to illustrate an emotional experience in their lives or to describe likes and dislikes. Through sharing, students will begin to see what it's like for their peers.

Facing History and Ourselves

facing history and ourselves website Use Facing History's resources to discuss and reflect on students' experiences and beliefs about tough topics such as racism and prejudice. Students can also create and share biopoems as part of a community unit.







Activities and Tools for Math Classrooms

Pattern Shapes

pattern shapes app Ask students about personal situations and have them use the app to construct a depiction of their feelings. Students can annotate the design, and a discussion can follow that helps students learn from each other while they study geometric shapes.


spent game Illustrate the crippling financial quandaries of poverty. Have students discuss their play, using correct finance terms such as "minimum wage" and "inflation," and host an honest talk about how Spent oversimplifies the issue of choice.







Activities and Tools for Science Classrooms


tinkercad website Use this 3D-design tool to address people's needs. Students can research societal problems (such as water quality or extinction). Once they build understanding and empathy, they can go through design processes to create a prototype solution.

AutoDesk Design Academy

autodesk design academy website Students can research problems in the community (such as climate change) and learn the personal stories of how people are affected. On the site they can design 3D prototypes. The solutions they create can be 3D-printed or shared with experts.







Activities and Tools for Social Studies Classrooms

Teaching Tolerance

teaching tolerance website Videos and photo essays depict life experiences around the world. Use the Mix It Up activities to have students identify social boundaries at school, and then have them use primary-source documents to find similar boundaries in history.

Global Oneness Project

global oneness project website This site showcases global life stories. Let students view the videos on climate change or sustainability, and then have them go out and create their own video that captures a cultural experience in school or their own community.







Activities and Tools for All Classrooms

Shadow Puppet EDU

shadow puppet EDU app Start a project where students search for images directly in the app (from art museums or NASA) to tell a story of the personal connection they have to the book they read, the organism they observed, or an event in history. Share as a class. 


skype website Skype is great for communicating with students from around the world. Hook up with another class and have students share their stories, solve an engineering solution together, or practice another language to gain perspective about other cultures.









Bridge the School-to-Home Connection


Explore More SEL Tips, Tools, and Teaching Strategies

We All Teach SEL