Learning Empathy Through the Arts in the Elementary Grades

Fall 2018

By Amy M. Burns and Kathryn Brower

In recent years, there have been numerous articles suggesting that empathy needs to be taught in schools. There are many reasons why incorporating empathy into the school curriculum benefits students. These reasons range from strengthening your classroom community to developing your students’ leadership skills so they may use them in their future community.1 In addition, children who develop empathy skills at a young age are more likely to develop lifelong skills that will help them understand other cultures and respond positively to them.2 As schools address teaching empathy across the elementary curriculum, how can the arts, specifically music and art classes, play an important role in the learning process?

Defining Empathy

Defining what empathy is in an elementary school curriculum can be challenging, as there is an ongoing debate about whether we should be teaching empathy or compassion. The term empathy suggests the ability to feel other people’s feelings and to be able to walk in their shoes. A person with empathy can appreciate someone else’s experience and point of view.3
However, Gerard Aching, professor of Africana, Romance, and Latin Studies at Cornell University, argues that it is impossible to teach empathy because one cannot tell another person  how to feel empathy. In a talk he gave last year, Aching encouraged students to think about how empathy, or the lack thereof, has affected the actions of people throughout history and how it influences our personal behaviors toward others. He referred to Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion, a book by Paul Bloom, the Brooks and Suzanne Ragen Professor of Psychology and Cognitive Science at Yale University. Bloom maintains that rational or reasoned compassion should be taught instead of empathy because “one uses logic and reasoning to figure out how to help other people.”4
Finally, the term compassion may be associated with relating to the pain another person might feel, while empathy may relate to being in tune with a person’s positive feelings.5 When we consider how the arts can help elementary students learn empathy, we combine empathy’s feelings with logic’s compassion. We define empathy as a student’s ability to understand the needs of another person and know how to act and respond to make a positive difference.

Mrs. Burns’s Music Classroom

 In Aching’s talk, he quoted Michael Morrell’s book Empathy and Democracy: Feeling, Thinking and Deliberation. Morrell believes that, in order for democracy to work, we need empathy. He also believes that empathy can be learned and that more funding for the arts could “induce greater empathy in citizens.”6
The arts are intertwined with feelings, emotions, and creativity. Therefore, I believe they can induce greater empathy in people, especially children. In Ken Robinson and Lou Aronica’s book Creative Schools: The Grassroots Revolution That’s Transforming Education, the authors state that “the arts are about qualities of human experiences.” They speak to the benefits of reforming schools from industrial-based learning to a more creative learning process. Even at a young age, students who create and perform music feel connected to the music. The music innately brings about emotion in them.7

A video of a scene from Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park presents a wonderful example of the power of music. In the first clip, the characters see a dinosaur for the first time, but without John Williams’ score. The second clip shows the same scene but with Williams’ score (https://drive.google.com/open?id=1hQNwy8vR9O0-bJvfS6EcAp7RV6wQq8NT). The music enhances the feelings the characters are expressing and connects the audience to them. When elementary students create music, their feelings of ownership, connection, and purpose are conveyed to the listener, and the listener responds with emotion.
When my second-graders were asked to compose a four-measure melody to accompany the fifth-graders’ Google site about whales (Figure 1), the younger students had to experience many emotions. They had to understand how music could sound like water and to decide—with guidance—what notes they could use to compose their melodies. They did so with Noteflight (www.noteflight.com/), so the melody would go up and down like a wave (Figure 2). When they wanted their wave to flow, they used Soundtrap (www.soundtrap.com/), a cloud-based digital audio music creation app, to create a flowing accompaniment (Figure 3). When they wanted to make sure that the audience viewing the website would understand why the music was there, they used whalesynth.com to record whale sounds to accompany their melodies (Figure 4). The students understood the purpose, thought about the music from the viewer’s perspective, and created music to enhance the site.

Empathy in music is also conveyed through ensemble work (Figure 5). When my students learn and perform an arrangement for their Orff instruments (playing two or more parts together on xylophones/metalophones/percussion to accompany themselves or another grade singing a song), they must work together to achieve a goal—to successfully perform music together. When I record my elementary students performing as an ensemble, they immediately begin to listen more intently and reflect on what the listener would hear: Are the singing voices being covered by the instruments? Is one instrument more prominent sounding than another? The children reflect and adjust their performance to improve the musical experience for the performers and the listeners.
Empathy felt through movement and dance is extremely valuable in the elementary music classroom. When students work together to learn a dance, they must experience a variety of emotions to successfully perform the dance. The first step is choosing a partner. My students must be their BEST when choosing a partner: Body language, Eye contact, Say good words, Tone of voice. A student asks another student, “Will you be my partner?” That question can have a variety of tones, depending on the student’s body language and voice. Therefore, the student must be aware of being his or her BEST so that the person being asked feels comfortable saying “yes.” I empathize with students who are challenged by hand-holding. Therefore, I provide scarves so partners can hold these rather than holding each other’s hands.
When the students learn the dance, they must work as an ensemble in order to perform the dance with the music. This means that the students first discover where the dance originated and the history behind the dance. They then work together to perform the dance successfully so they can teach it to another student, teacher, or parent (parents join us for a community dance event; see Figure 6). The students learn the needs of their partners, the needs of the audience, and the needs of the dance (from its origins), and they begin to develop and learn empathy through performing and teaching.

Mrs. Brower’s Art Classroom

The highly emotional experience of creating art has been explored and studied for centuries, and the concept of evoking feeling through artmaking is far from novel. The use of empathy as a mechanism for inspiring art, however, is a personal journey between the maker and the piece itself. Empathy-inspired art can be thoroughly studied on a case-by-case basis, especially among child artists. As adults, we are responsible for providing the context in which children can experience empathy. One of the most effective methods of providing such context is through storytelling. The need to tell stories, fulfilled through visual art, can be seen as far back as the cave paintings of early humankind. When children study empathy within the context of a story, they can make art to help them better understand the story. They are able to use the artmaking process as a means of comprehending how other people feel. 
In working with first-graders, I introduced the idea of empathy through the vehicle of R. J. Palacio’s We’re All Wonders, which is a children’s version of Palacio’s young adult novel Wonder.8 Students were asked to pay close attention to the illustrations and the design aspects of the book in order to create a separation between the story’s plot and its associated artwork. In asking the students to pay attention to the illustrations, we hoped to encourage them to focus on the expressions on the characters’ faces, their body language, and the mood and color scheme of the drawings. After reading only one page, students observed the obvious differences in the physical appearance of the main character, but they continued to make astute observations about the feelings that were being evoked from the pictures in the book. By the end of the story, the children had far surpassed the surface meaning of the story and were able to express how they might feel if they were part of the story themselves. 
We then traced the profiles of each child on large pieces of watercolor paper using a projector to create a shadow. We asked the students to make observations. Because of their experience only a few minutes prior with We’re All Wonders, they were able to make observations that were more than superficialities, and they were eager to take their projects further. They created radiating sun-like rays around their heads in the profile pictures and filled each space with designs that used what they had learned in art class, combined with their individual point of view. They embellished their pencil design with oil pastel. The final step in the piece was to create a watercolor wash over their piece, choosing colors they felt matched their own feelings of self-reflection (Figure 7). This multi-layered approach to artmaking culminated in a gallery walk around the studio during which students were able to observe and comment on the feelings they perceived in their peers on the basis of their paintings. Students who seek to understand each other through empathy can, through art, understand their own emotional responses more thoroughly.

The same exploration of learning and experiencing empathy through artmaking can be used with children of any age as long as  the contextual elements of the story can be further understood through the artistic process. In my kindergarten art class, we read Ish by Peter H. Reynolds. The children listened intently to the story of Ramon, a child who lacked confidence in his artmaking ability and was never happy with the finished products he created. His sister would pick up his discarded pictures and post them on her wall. By the last page, the children were all smiling at the vast gallery of discarded pictures that were “tree-ish” or “flower-ish,” and yet all were beautiful depictions of Ramon’s inner desire to depict his surroundings.9 Kindergartners then took pieces of heavy-weight watercolor paper, crumpled them into balls, and painted the exposed edges of the paper. When the crumpled balls were dried, we opened them and made observations about the style, color, and variation in each piece. Students made observations about each other’s paintings and were delighted with the uniqueness of their own pieces. We talked about what made each paper different from the next, and we related the concept to the individual children in the class. Students collaged the crumpled paper into large-format letters that represented their initials (Figure 8). The final pieces were an expression of emotion and uniqueness and were a discrete study of empathy, illustrating how young elementary-age children could experience empathy through artmaking.

Elementary students need to have the freedom to explore all of their questions within a context in which they can easily relate, such as art and music. More important, they need to feel a sense of freedom and creativity to explore their feelings. In 2018, we ask children to learn more content and information than they have ever been asked to process. If we educators can provide an easy-to-understand language through the arts that is not only familiar to our students but also comfortable, they will continue to seek understanding of their world through empathy.


  1. Lauren Owen, “Empathy in the Classroom: Why Should I Care?” Edutopia, November 11, 2015; online at https://www.edutopia.org/blog/empathy-classroom-why-should-i-care-lauren-owen.
  2. Emily Reynolds, “Why Teach Empathy?” Voices Magazine, British Council, June 15, 2015; online at https://www.britishcouncil.org/voices-magazine/why-teach-empathy.
  3. Carol Ann Tomlinson and Michael Murphy, “The Empathetic School,” Education Leadership, March 2018, pp. 20-27; online at www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/mar18/vol75/num06/The-Empathetic-School.aspx.
  4. Gerald Aching, quoted in Yvette Lisa Ndlovu, “Searching for the Role Empathy Plays in Our History,” Cornell University, College of Arts and Sciences, November 9, 2017; online at https://as.cornell.edu/news/professor-speaks-empathy.
  5. Tomlinson and Murphy, “The Empathetic School.”
  6. Michael E. Morrell, Empathy and Democracy: Feeling, Thinking, and Deliberation (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2015).
  7. Ken Robinson and Lou Aronica, Creative Schools: The Grassroots Revolution That’s Transforming Education (New York: Penguin Books, 2016).
  8. R. J. Palacio, We’re All Wonders (New York: Knopf, 2017).
  9. Peter H. Reynolds, Ish (Somerville, MA: Candlewick, 2015).
Amy M. Burns

Amy M. Burns (aburns@fhcds.org) has taught preK-grade 4 general music for over 20 years at Far Hills Country Day School in Far Hills, New Jersey. She has written three books and numerous articles on how to integrate technology into the elementary music classroom. She was the recent recipient of the 2017 NJ Non-Public School Teacher of the Year Award.

Kathryn Brower

Kathryn Brower (kbrower@fhcds.org) is a teacher of visual and performing arts at Far Hills Country Day School in Far Hills, New Jersey. She has over 14 years of teaching experience in independent schools, teaching a wide variety of subjects within the humanities.