Teaching Empathy to Children Through Storytelling

As English learners enter school this year, one of our most important jobs as teachers is to help them adjust to the American classroom. It is important to make our ELs feel welcome and accepted. With all of the anti-immigrant and refugee rhetoric that children are hearing in the news,  teachers have a  genuine opportunity to address the issue around immigration and build empathy. One way to do this is to design lessons around students’ stories about their cultural heritage. These lessons should not only be told by immigrants and refugees but for all of the students in the classroom. Here are a few ideas of how students can share their stories, and a few lesson ideas that are inclusive of all students.

Have students do the following:

  • Interview their parents to learn stories about when their ancestors came to the United States, and what difficulties they needed to overcome. Learning about the difficulties experienced by people who have made this journey will help all students feel empathetic toward their classmates.
  • Draw pictures and tell a story about what they miss from their country or what they value from their families’ culture.
  • Bring in and talk about family  artifacts, photographs, or other mementos that they or their ancestors brought with them.

Sample Lessons That Are Inclusive of All Students

Sharing Family Heritages in Grades 1–3

  1. Teacher brings in and shares an artifact from his or her culture and explains why it is personally important.
  2. Students are then asked to brainstorm questions they want to ask about the teacher’s artifact.
  3. Students write questions to ask in pairs.
  4. The teacher models how to answer the questions using sentence starters for ELs: This (artifact, photograph, memento) is important to my family because______________.
  5. Ask a parent to share an item from his or her culture that has meaning for his or her family. Have students use the questions they have created to ask the parent questions. I’ve had parents share a wide range of cultural experiences including hanboks, kimonos, games, stories, and photographs of their home country including their house, school, friends and extended family.
  6. Students bring an item from their culture and explain what it is and why it is important. Classmates ask questions and the student answers them using the sentence starters.
  7. Students can also reflect on their classmates’ stories in writing or orally.

Activities for Students in Grades 3–5

Older students can be asked to interview a family member about his or her or an ancestor’s immigration story using questions that they have developed in class. If teachers make a video from these stories, students can share them with their families. ELs who are beginning learners can draw pictures of their immigration story and write a few short sentences with the help of the teacher or English-speaking classmate.

I once had a class make quilt on which the students shared what they missed from their country. They drew pictures and wrote a short explanation of what they missed. We copied the picture on special fabric that can be put in a color copy machine. Here is a lesson in Teaching Tolerance about family quilt projects for the classroom.


Here are some resources available for teachers at different grade and English language development levels.

  • The Very Quiet Foreign Girls Poetry Club is an account of how a group of young girls told their immigration stories through poetry. In this article, the teacher asked students to write about what they don’t remember from their country. (Grades 4–12)
  • Honoring our families’ immigrant narratives is an excellent article about teaching students to write their immigrant stories. There are also some excellent links including the Made into America website and an immigrant interview form, which could be adapted to the needs of children in different grade and English language development levels. (Grades 4–12)
  • Family Tapestry is a group of lesson plans from Teaching Tolerance. (pre-k–5)
  • Immigration: Stories of Yesterday and Today is a study unit from Scholastic that explores the history of immigration in the United States and examines what it is like to be an immigrant today. Its Meet Young Immigrants series is a group of stories about young immigrants today.  It is a good example for students who are telling their stories. (Grades 3–7)

I hope these resources and activities work for you and your students. If you have others you use successfully, please share them in the comments, below.


About Judie Haynes

Judie Haynes
Judie Haynes taught elementary ESL for 28 years and is the author and coauthor of eight books for teachers of ELs , the most recent being “Teaching to Strengths: Supporting Students Living with Trauma, Violence and Chronic Stress“ with Debbie Zacarian and Lourdes Alvarez-Ortiz. She was a columnist for the TESOL publication "Essential Teacher" and is also cofounder and comoderator of the Twitter Chat for teachers of English learners #ELLCHAT.
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6 Responses to Teaching Empathy to Children Through Storytelling

  1. Judie Haynes Judie Haynes says:

    Thank you for this addition to my information on empathy. I really appreciate your feedback.

  2. afifa says:

    I was going through the options in general, as I have just joined in. I am teaching Intercultural Communication at university and English at elementary school levels. For the past few years many families settled abroad are moving back and facing similar circumstances.
    Found these tips useful!

  3. Elena Shvidko Elena Shvidko says:

    Thank you for the great post, Judie! I was wondering if you could recommend any research on empathy that you find helpful and interesting.

  4. Joan Wink says:

    Thank you, Judie. I always love your work, and your thoughts on empathy are excellent. Here are a couple of other links, which recently popped up on my Facebook page.
    Brené Brown
    Mark Ruffalo

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