Learning Empathy with Compassion Projects


By Jaime Crane and Lisa Bradley
1st-grade teachers, North Canaan Elementary School


How do we grow the capacity of our young students for empathy?

Last year, the first grade teachers focused on the Habit of Mind animation “Listening with Understanding and Empathy” in their classes. This was part of a larger regional project with Bena and Allison to personalize learning with Habits of Mind. Our students learned more about what empathy looks and sounds like as they identified with the characters in the video.

In a conversation following the video, one of Jaime’s students talked about his deep love for his dog and that sparked a broader conversation about students’ love of animals. The class decided to build on this interest to give their classes a shared opportunity to experience empathy. The first grade teachers started a compassion project with their classes. They contacted the local animal control officer and a local animal shelter to see if they could help the animals there. There was a need for blankets, towels, and bones so they named the project “Blankets and Bones.”



All of the first graders began making posters to hang up at school, writing flyers for the school’s email blast, and making announcements over the loudspeaker to ask for donations. Jaime’s classroom volunteer walked into the classroom while the students were creating their posters. She knew right away which shelter we were helping because she walks dogs there. She brought the class pictures of the animals at the shelter and told us their names. The class loved seeing some of the animals they were going to help. We set up baskets to collect donations.



Unfortunately, we were unable to finish the collection in school because of COVID and the transition to remote learning. Jaime was able to deliver some of the donations to the local animal control officer, and her student, who loves his dog, picked up the other donations and safely delivered them to the porch of the local shelter. Making personal connections to the HOM is key.



Our Empathy Project for This Year

While reading a Fountas & Pinnell book, A Card for Grandma, published by Heineman one of the students made the connection between how happy the grandmother was upon receiving a card and how he (the student) felt when he received a note in the mail from me (their teacher). That led to a discussion about who also might enjoy receiving a card. With Veteran’s Day approaching, we decided to write cards and letters to the son of one of our teachers who is in the Army. Upon receiving the cards, he wrote us back…and the cycle began. At Christmas time, he Zoomed with the class and with the help of his mom reminding him of which student sent which note, he talked to each of the students. We will be sending him a Valentine’s Day box of cards soon.

This project continued to spread into other expressions of empathy. For example, one student often comes to school without breakfast or a snack, and he expresses his feelings aloud about not having it often. “I don’t have a snack. I wish I had a snack.”

We talked about how we can solve the problem.

Though his friends want to share, which is not allowed this year, his friends have stated their thoughts. “I wish I could give you half of my apple.” “But I can give you a pack of my cookies!”

Last week, we made great strides when preparing to go outside for recess. A student said, “I can’t go outside, I don’t have boots.” That was immediately followed by another student saying, “That’s like when our friend doesn’t have a snack. You are not happy, but we can solve this problem.” “I guess we will stay inside and play.”

We have found that making personal connections to Habits of Mind is key, especially when focusing on listening with understanding and empathy. Small conversations can lead to ripple effects of action that demonstrate the connection and kindness of our communities.


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