Promoting Empathy in an Inclusive Special Education Classroom

By Theresa Amoriello, Special Education Teacher

Working in an Inclusive Special Education classroom is not an easy job. I’m always making sure that the students are understanding lessons, trying to figure out what they might not be quite grasping onto, why are they just sitting there no matter how many times I try and refocus them, and deciding if they are growing socially as well as academically. The key to figuring out what makes a child tick can be a key to helping them gain the confidence and the abilities to master important lessons. Forming relationships with these students, ensuring that they are safe and cared for, and talking to them is what enables us to build that trust with them. While this should be done with every student, it becomes more apparent with those who have special needs. Finding out why that one student is always calling out or acting out no matter how many warnings you give, can give clarity into how you can better support their learning. On that same token, building a relationship with the quiet, shy student can give them the confidence they need thrive.

Alongside building these relationships, modeling empathetic behavior is a huge part of success in the classroom. Social media has tons of fun, engaging, and heart-opening activities you can incorporate into your everyday lessons. For example, I love the Toothpaste Challenge. When I first did this lesson I was working with seventh grade students, and I wasn’t sure if they would grab onto it. Turns out, they loved it! To quote of the students: “You got us to talk about our feelings without really even talking about our feelings.” All you need are toothpaste bottles, paper plates, and toothpicks. Have the students squeeze out all of the toothpaste onto the paper plate. Once they have done this, the challenge is to put all the toothpaste back into the tube. This is impossible to do, but they do not know this yet. It is fun to see the competition of the teams and the different strategies they use to try to accomplish this. After enough time has passed and they have really tried, the explanation can be given. The point of this challenge is to represent how you cannot take back words and actions. You can say you are sorry, but it never really can be taken back fully. The Toothpaste Challenge is a trending hashtag and can easily be found on the internet.

The Compliments Challenge is another fun and great lesson. Using whiteboard or sheet of paper, have the students sit one-by-one in the front of the room with their backs facing the board or paper. Then have the students one by one come up and write a compliment about one student. Once everyone has gone you can have the student turn around and read what their friends have written about them. The students do not see who writes what about them, taking away the awkwardness of being put on the spot. The students can see and learn just how unique and special they truly are and their friends see it as well.

Learning about your students and how they feel about each other is another part of having success with empathetic learning. Students can learn a lot about each other and how to embrace other people’s differences. Another one of my favorite activities to do with my students is to have a Compliments Snowball Fight. This is super fun and can make winter months a little less dreary. All the students have to do is write their name on paper. Everyone crumples up their paper and throws it around the room. Once you catch a “snowball” you write something nice about the student whose snowball you have. It is really fun and can be done multiple time. Students love the fast paced action of the game and again learn how much others appreciate them.

Empathetic teaching in the classroom is key to fostering learners who know not only how to take tests but also how to care for others of the world around them. Remember to:

  • Let them know that they are allowed to make mistakes and learn from them
  • Remind them that they are truly cared for
  • Aide them in becoming whatever their minds want to take them
  • Make sure they know that no matter what the week brings they are awesome and can achieve great things!

Also: don’t forget to show yourself that same kind of love. You too are awesome and continue to make a difference in children’s lives!


Theresa Amoriello is a 5th and 7th grade Special Education teacher, co-director of the Drama club and assistant softball coach. She graduated in 2014 from Cabrini College in Elementary Education and Special Education. She loves reading and learning new things. She also loves new challenges.


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