Expanding Emotional Vocabularies and Building Empathy

Houston Kraft · October 29, 2018

The average student today has as much anxiety as the average psychiatric patient in the 1950’s. In her practical and insightful book Unselfie, Dr. Michele Borba explains that as anxiety goes UP, empathy goes DOWN. And it makes sense: the more stressed or worried I am about what is going on in my life, the harder time I have thinking about what is going on in yours. As a result, empathy has dropped 40% in college students since 2000. Dr. Borba calls this inverse relationship between anxiety and empathy the “Empathy Gap.”

As educators, we must work to fill this Gap! One anecdote to anxiety is the intentional building of relationships and the recognition that “I’m not alone in these feelings.” Here are two practical strategies that can increase emotional awareness and empathy for the students you serve:


Where’s Wall-do: Use a space on one wall in your classroom that can be used as a daily or weekly tool for the social and emotional skill of emotional/self-awareness. RULER from Yale’s Center for Emotional Intelligence created this simple chart of 100 emotion words. Most of us, at first glance, only identify with the basic emotions: mad, sad, glad, and “afrad” (afraid, but afrad is a fun way to keep it rhyming).

As students walk in to your room, have them pull from a bucket of clothespins and “check in” by clipping their primary emotion for that day. A simple way to 1) have students practice self-awareness, 2) expand student’s emotional vocabulary, and 3) give you immediate insight into your classes collective emotional state that day. If 60% are clipping the word “anxious,” it may change how you teach that class! It can also give students a moment of collective empathy that they aren’t alone in any of their wide-range of emotions.

Quadrant Questions: Have students walk to the corner of the room represented by which of the four quadrants of feelings they are in that day (in the image, they are color-coded red, green, yellow, blue - you can choose to do this in another way if you like!) Then, have them pair up with a person from their same quadrant and have them walk through different question levels, starting at Level One. Depending on time and the current social-emotional reality of your classroom, you can bring students from Level One questions up to Level Four - but be sure that you take it slow, making your way through each Level slowly and with multiple questions (even over multiple days). The higher the Level question, the most trust required for it to work as an empathy-building tool!

Repeat the process at another time knowing that their quadrant may change day to day or week to week! Vary the structure by having them partner with someone from a different quadrant as opposed to their same quadrant - there are empathy building opportunities in both situations!

Empathy is a skill that combines self-reflective emotional awareness and the character practice of asking good questions and listening patiently and respectfully to peoples’ answers. Build these simple activities into the weekly routine of your class to start to fill the Gap between Anxiety and a more Empathetic world.

Download the worksheet here.




Houston Kraft

Houston Kraft is the co-founder of CharacterStrong. He is a professional speaker and kindness advocate who has spoken at over 600 events internationally. Student Body President in High School, Class President at Bowdoin College, Leadership Camp Staff for 14 years in Washington - he is a lifelong learner of character, culture, kindness, and leadership. He was featured in 2019 on BBQ Lays Potato Chips and his mom's lasting life lesson is "Hug like you mean it."