The importance of empathy in teaching

I once read about a really cool organisation called Roots of Empathy. A baby of two months old is invited to join a class of children at an Elementary School on a monthly basis throughout the school year. They come in with a parent and a specialist instructor who facilitates the session, allowing the children to forge a relationship with the baby. The idea is that the students observe and label the baby’s feelings and intentions and, by doing so, better understand their own emotions and those of the others around them.

I had my first baby when I was teaching at an international school in Thailand. My home was on the school campus, and this meant that I could have a go at this approach myself. It was a truly lovely experience. My Grade 6 students were incredibly kind to my son and clearly enjoyed his company. I sat him on the carpet in the middle of a circle of students and let him roam around. It was really interesting to see how my students engaged with him: often it was the ones who struggled socially with their peers who had the greatest affinity with my baby. 

As educators, we constantly need to think about how we use empathy in teaching. Of course, we need to demonstrate empathy ourselves in order to fully understand and connect with the young people we work with. But we also need to teach empathy to our students: it is a skill that can only develop effectively through active engagement with others, and we need to cultivate opportunities for this engagement within our classrooms. It’s not enough to just stick up a few quotes about empathy on the walls. The IB agrees that ‘using empathy’ is something we need to teach, and this is listed as one of their ‘Approaches to Learning’ in the Middle Years Programme framework.

However, it’s not easy to find a spare baby to make monthly visits to your classroom, especially when your own has turned into a six-year-old! This is why the idea of Empathy Week is so exciting… 

empathy week poster

What is Empathy Week?

Ed Kirwan, the founder of Empathy Week, used to be Head of Chemistry at a school in North London before he became a filmmaker. He states that empathy is the most important skill to develop in the 21st century, that it underpins the rest of the skills we want young people to learn. That it helps us develop and keep strong relationships, allowing people to connect with one another. He fervently believes in the importance of teaching empathy to children and young adults.

Empathy Week is an organisation that runs an annual festival of films, events, and classroom resources that develop the skill of empathy in students aged 5-18. This year the festival runs from Monday 26th February to Friday 1st March, and all schools can get involved, no matter where in the world they might be.

Running in over 40 countries, the programme uses film as a means to help learners unlock their emotional intelligence – and all the benefits that come with it. The team defines empathy as ‘the skill to understand another person and the ability to create space for someone to reveal their authentic self whilst reserving judgement’. Through the use of film, they tell the stories of people students might not otherwise come into contact with, allowing young people to broaden their horizons and get to know about lives different from their own.

Participating schools gain access to online materials and events about empathy in teaching – including webinars and workshops. It’s not all about absorbing the wisdom of others, though. As well as having access to a differentiated set of materials including five films created specifically for the project, students can also put their newly-enhanced skills into action by creating a film of their own – and potentially win a Global Empathy Award.

You can find the Empathy Week website here, and their learning framework here.

empathy in teaching


The five-week programme receives rave reviews from teachers and students alike – and the results reflect this. Recent research conducted with the University of Cambridge found that the intervention left students with more self-esteem and a greater capacity to connect with others: two things that undeniably improve mental and emotional wellbeing. 

We can’t recommend Empathy Week enough to all schools and all ages. Our primary age pupils gained so much through their engagement with the five thought-provoking films and the project we undertook following these. The whole experience has embedded in our practice a real focus on empathy and our children have benefited hugely.” 

– Paul Ayto, Head of Reid Street Primary. 

You can see the full impact report conducted with the University of Cambridge here.

How to get involved

empathy in teaching students

If you would like to sign your school up to be part of this year’s Empathy Week festival for free you can register now. The theme of the week is ‘Home’, and touches on important social issues such as homelessness, wellbeing, nationality, and war.

There are in-person and online events: Empathy Week works with organisations including Canva and Snap, empowering teachers through free CPD sessions, and holding careers events to introduce students to pathways they previously never knew existed.

You can access on-demand resources: from film-based assemblies to TEDx style talks led by inspiring speakers (including journalists, graphic designers and entrepreneurs). Empathy Week’s resources are available for schools to access now in preparation for the week.

Playing the long game

What’s brilliant about Empathy Week is that a school’s engagement lasts much longer than seven days. The vision is to create a whole generation of empathic leaders, and this involves working with young people on a regular basis to develop their empathy skills. 

We have heard some incredible stories of schools who have embedded the programme within the curricula of all year groups so that the resources can be accessed by everyone. Empathy Week for them is an annual festival. Their senior teams clearly understand the crucial importance of empathy in leadership, and of teaching empathy to kids.

If you would like your school to be part of this group of schools, join the mission to build the #EmpathyGeneration by registering at

empathy week poster

At Teacher Horizons, empathy is at the core of our approach to working with teachers and leaders. We are passionate about making connections and building a supportive community of people from all over the world. This is why we are so proud to partner with Ed and his team at Empathy Week. We hope you consider working with them too.

You can follow Empathy Week on Instagram, Facebook and LinkedIn. If you’d like to follow Ed’s journey, check out his Instagram, Facebook and LinkedIn too.

photo of author
Written by Camilla Cook
Camilla has been working in education for the past sixteen years, teaching English in the UK, El Salvador, Thailand, and Tanzania. She participated in the Teach First Programme in 2005, and went on to support another Teach First teacher in her efforts to set up The Literacy Pirates, an education charity working to develop the literacy, confidence, and perseverance of young people referred for extra support by their teachers. As their first Director of Learning, she was responsible for planning, leading, and evaluating the learning programmes. She has worked as the Head of Language and Literature in international schools for the past five years, and is now living in Brighton with her husband and two children, attempting to reacclimatise to the weather by cycling around as much as possible and eating lots of ice cream.
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