Developing Empathy in the Art Room

The 2012-2013 school year was littered with unfortunate events.  Incidents like the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary, the Boston Marathon bombings and the recent tornadoes in Moore, Oklahoma cannot help but trickle into the classroom and influence our students.  These unexpected yet pivotal occurrences got me thinking:

How do these events connect to art?

How can we take these heartbreaking circumstances and learn from them?


A 2009 study Within Connections: Empathy, Mirror Neurons and Art Education by Carol S. Jeffers reminds us that the art room might just be the perfect environment for teaching empathy.  In her article, Jeffers discusses the experiences students have when identifying with and creating different works of art. Artistic exploration helps a student to identify his or her “self” while figuring out his or her place in the community and the world. Thanks to what are called mirror neurons, a student can experience empathy just by sharing artwork or experiences, even if he or she is not the creator of the piece. This puts a whole new spin on the importance of student reflections, class critiques and artist statements!

In light of this study, I encourage you to talk about current events with your students. Students can develop empathy not only by talking through their own emotions surrounding the events, but also through discussing artwork about the events. Try to help students identify with what an artist was feeling when creating a certain piece. If you want to take it to another level, you could even try an artistic service-learning project, like Pinwheels for Peace or Empty Bowls. 

If you would like to learn even more about the power of empathy in the classroom, sign up for AOE’s Recharging the Right Brain Class this August.

How do you support empathy in your classroom? 

What service-learning projects would you recommend?  Please share!

Heather Crockett

Heather is AOE’s Project Manager and an expert in differentiation, curriculum development, and assessment. She is a veteran teacher in the art room and at the graduate level.


  • Laura

    My school is in Bergen County, NJ, and we were hit hard with last years Hurricane Sandy. After we had come back from school, I had asked my middle school students to draw something about the hurricane for their weekly art homework. I emphazised that often times it is helpful when we draw or write about experiences, to get it out of our systems in a way. I got back a few general ones, but others showing the long gas lines, sitting in a darkened house with no heat, and one showing how they left their house in a boat with their family.
    Per my principal’s request to the staff, we were not to talk about what happened in Sandy Hook Elementary unless the students themselves brought it up, and then only allow the students to lead the discussion. We did however participate in a snowflake project for the school, where I taught the students how to make paper snowflakes and we sent them to the new elementary school for decoration.

    • Thanks for sharing such personal experiences. I remember teaching during 9/11 and we were instructed not to discuss it at all. One student, who knew what was going, was in tears all day. When I finally talked to her she told me that her mom was away on a business trip and wondered if her mom’s plane had been involved. No one would talk to her about what was going on and where it was happening, so I did. Her mom was headed to the West Coast, so she could relax a little. I can see why schools don’t want us to bring up these tragedies more than necessary, but I don’t always know if not discussing it at all (which was my experience) was the best method.

  • artprojectgirl

    I’ve been meaning to respond to this, but have always been reading on my cell phone (which is so annoying to respond from!) Thank you for bringing up this important topic. I hope AOE opens more conversations about creating Peace through the arts through developing skills such as empathy. I am right with you! I’m sure you know from my presentation and blog, I won’t go through the ways again that I do this in my classroom. But thank you for linking the study. I’m looking forward to reading it now that I’m on a computer!