Mar 01 2021

How to Teach Empathy to Students in the Virtual World?

Positive Action Staff
School violence. Zero tolerance policy. Bullying. These words have taken center stage in education today. As teachers, we care about finding ways to combat issues around bullying. We initiate conversations on staff development and training to come up with solutions.

We now teach students responsible social media habits and we’re attuned to initial signs of bullying.

But what happens when the school community shifts to the virtual world?

Students face new challenges with the emergence of online learning. What can we do to ease the burden for all parties involved?

It all starts with a healthy dose of empathy.

What Is Empathy?

Webster's Dictionary defines empathy as the ability to perceive and share in another's emotions and lived experience.

When explaining empathy to your students, the famous words of Alfred Adler can be of help:

How does empathy differ from sympathy?

Sympathy is a feeling of concern and care for someone, accompanied by the desire to see them better off or happier.

Sympathy can lead to empathy and vice versa — but not always. For example, it's possible to sympathize with animals such as dogs and birds, but not, strictly speaking, empathize with them.

Whereas sympathy is feeling sorrow or pity for another person's misfortune, empathy is the ability to understand another’s feelings from their perspective. It’s akin to feeling yourself into their emotions.

Can You Teach Empathy?

Some people regard empathy as a fixed, innate trait that you’re either born with or not.

In actuality, this isn’t the case. Empathy isn't always automatic. Better yet, it doesn't boil down to a single ability or skill. As a result, you can teach empathy.

Empathy revolves around three distinct processes:

  • Being able to reason from another person's viewpoint (e.g., the ability to “put yourself in another's shoes” and validate their thoughts and feelings)
  • Sharing in another’s feelings (e.g., “I feel your sadness”)
  • A desire to help (e.g. feeling concerned for someone distressed or vulnerable)

Luckily, all of these processes can be shaped by learning.

But — how do we apply this learning to a virtual landscape?

The Three Types of Empathy

The beauty of empathy is that to express it, you do not need to share the same experiences. Rather, it’s an attempt to better understand another by learning to see things from their perspective.

Here are the three types of empathy, according to psychologists Daniel Goleman and Paul Ekman:

  • Cognitive
  • Emotional
  • Compassionate

Knowing how to show and teach empathy using these three components will help you build stronger relationships and trust among your students. Let’s explore them.


This kind of empathy is all about how others feel and what they might be thinking. It’s also known as perspective-taking.

With online learning in particular, students have to adapt to learning environments that may be less than ideal. Rasmussen College captures some of the challenges students face.

As teachers, reviewing some of these issues can help you connect better with your students. You can use surveys or forums prompting them to open up about the difficulties they face most often.

It’ll help students become better communicators because they learn to relay emotional information in a sensitive manner that best reaches the other person.

For cognitive empathy to be beneficial, it needs to work alongside emotional empathy. Why? Because connecting with others requires us to share our feelings.

When someone else shares a feeling that you can relate with, an emotional bond is formed.


Have you ever cringed when another person hit their elbow or stubbed their toe on something?

If yes, you have experienced emotional empathy — which also extends to physical sensations.

What happens is that you internally identify a moment in which you were similarly anxious. It's the ability to successfully understand what the person went through and put yourself in a corresponding emotional space.

Doing so virtually is quite the challenge — but it’s not impossible.

The expanding world of online learning has brought to life a shared experience that transcends age and occupation. We now know what it feels like to work from home for an extended period.

Because our lives and experiences match, the overall reaction is similar for many of us. This period helps kids, caregivers, and teachers become more empathetic towards each other.

We’re all anticipating a moment in the future we’re anxious about, thus sharing a “corresponding emotional space.”

Teaching empathy now requires all teachers to create time and safe spaces for their students to reach out. This calls for compassion.


When our empathy goes beyond simply understanding and sharing others’ feelings, we feel the need to help or take action however we can.

Compassionate empathy is what ties cognitive and emotional empathy together. It’s the spark that spontaneously moves us to help others when needed.

From this viewpoint, we can help others without getting overcome with feeling. This is important as students learn self-control.

Emotions can be overwhelming and chaotic from time to time. Understanding how to avoid getting swept up in the flurry can help your students control their reactions and behaviors.

This will eventually lead them to become better communicators in the future as they are able to pinpoint exactly what the issue is.

We can also take time to process a situation without hurriedly rushing into a problem-solving process.

Can Empathy Work Online?

To date, there’s no handbook to help educators flawlessly shift their teachings online. Overall, it’s been a period of trial, error, and spontaneity.

Now more than ever is the time to:

  • Review our relationship-building strategies.
  • Improve our practices in accountability and grading.

This will help us manage unprecedented obstacles that students face in the online world.

As teachers facilitate new classes and design new courses, they can also update the following guidelines and strategies.

Empathy Starts With You

Just as we point out signs of bullying and notice when students are struggling in certain areas, we can also remain tuned in to empathy. Aim to be kind and understanding in all interactions with your students.

When you show empathy and understanding to your students, you can ease their suffering. Remember, students don’t have signs on their foreheads brandished during online classes displaying their anxieties or home-life situations.

Guided Interpersonal Communication

When you give students the chance to share their thoughts and perspectives, they feel better and understand others with greater ease.

You can do so by encouraging your students to create questions and answer each other in live chats and forums.

Find different ways for your students to collaborate and build a class resource depending on your LMS. For example, you may introduce a picture dictionary so the students can comment on each other’s entries using course-related terms.

Experiential Learning Techniques

Referencing the real world can breathe life into your online classroom. Ask your students to look for resources in their communities that relate to concepts taught in class.

For example, you can create a forum in which students find real-world examples that they share. The aim is not to share their examples but to reply to each other and explain where they believe the connection lies.

This will help children expand their self-awareness by making comparisons, reflecting, and inferring.

Self and Peer Reflection

You can teach empathy by setting up questions that help kids reflect on their current situations. This allows them to identify their strengths and build up their capacity to see the challenges others might face.

When students are asked to assess themselves and their classmates, it puts them in a place where they need to understand their peers.

Introduce Incentives for Positive Student to Student Interactions

Teaching empathy can be boosted in the classroom by offering merits associated with empathy to students. Discussion boards can be modified to allow students to discuss the course content and encourage interaction.

Add bonus points or badges when students post or react genuinely to each other's comments. This can help reinforce positive behavior as they are rewarded for their work, effort, and participation.

Adapting Lessons for Virtual Learning

We’ve developed the Positive Action program that helps teachers expand their flexibility to teach online with a little bit of help.

We can help you:

Review the Guide to Succeeding with Positive Action

By evaluating your study plan for your students, we can implement new changes to how you model your content and boost its effectiveness.

Review the Best Practices for Teaching Positive Action

We can break down your class into four goals to be attained by the end of class:

  • Direct instruction
  • Formative assessment
  • Activity
  • Brainstorming

These stages will have your students expand their capacity to express their emotions positively in an online class.

Teaching empathy can be fun. We would know… after all, positive action is our passion. We have products and program training designed to revolutionize your online teaching experience.