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  • Writer's pictureTrish Dotts

Empathy, Squares and Chairs

Updated: Mar 8, 2020

Our (Deer Park Elementary) students have been developing language and analyzing how empathy and compassion are necessary components of our school’s safe learning environment.

First, each of our 24 K-2 classrooms has about 20 students. Typically, I greet the students at the door then, they find a ‘square’ to sit on in the front of the room. My carpet is made from 2 x 2 carpet squares. We start class with them arranged in a small area with students having a square to themselves. These little squares are more than large enough for each student to sit comfortably. The squares have offered opportunities for students to practice staying in their own space. We practice saying “I feel cramped when people are in my space” instead of the more ‘bossy, “Get out of my square”. We also get to practice the idea that “We have More than Enough” when students begin minor arguments about which square to sit on. By now, three months in, students have no more problems self-selecting a square at the carpet.

Once they are seated at the carpet. I use an “attention-getter” of call and response with TPR.

Persevere! (read more here) and

Empathy! Students say, “I can tell how others feel”. We have been working on empathy for three weeks.

This week, I changed it up! Now, when I greet students at the door, I offer, “Choose a square or a chair” I arranged 8 chairs in an arc behind the carpet area. The students still sit close in, but it makes an ampitheatre-like setting. I chose to add the chairs because sometimes students need the freedom to sit with a bit more support, especially if the lesson isn’t going to have many opportunities for physical movement.

Did you read the important part? There are only 8 chairs. There are about 20 students in each class. This means that some students are going to be disappointed. Fortunately, we have already discussed the privilege of being disappointed.

Since I greet the students at the door, I always hear a few students express their frustration that there wasn’t a chair for each one. So, I rush to the front of the room to assure the kiddos that I planned for a little conflict to occur. Yes, there are only 8 chairs. Yes, most students will be sitting on the carpet instead.

This is where the lesson begins.

Teacher: If you are sitting on the carpet, but you wanted to sit on a chair, raise your hand.

Most of the carpet-sitters raise a hand.

There are 3 types of students who do not raise a hand.

1) Students who are flexible and adaptable.

2) those who avoid conflict even at their detriment.

3) those who are so angry that they didn’t get a chair that they are refusing to participate.

Teacher: Asks the chair-sitters, “Use empathy to help me understand how do you think the students at the carpet might feel about not sitting in a chair?” “

I ask each ‘chair-sitter’ They typically have 3 different responses. “They feel sad, or mad’ or "They feel disappointed" or the chair-sitter says (refusing to acknowledge their impact on others) . ."They feel fine/happy."

Usually the student who says this, is the type that is more concerned about personal stuff than thinking of others. So, I love this opportunity.

I pause for a moment to digress with the whole class.

“Now, I know that some people’s families do not celebrate birthdays and that is wonderful for those families. Many of us do acknowledge birthday. How do you feel when it is your birthday and you are with your family? Do you like that day? Students usually smile as they reply, YES! We have a short discussion about how it isn’t necessary to have a party or get gifts, it’s just nice to be recognized as if it is your day.

“How do you think OTHER people might feel on their birthday?”

Many students reply . . GREAT! But surprisingly, many students reply that others don’t like their birthday. .

So, I ask, “Raise you hand if you like your birthday?”

Everyone raises their hand. . . .

“Look around, everyone seems to like their birthday, at least a little bit.

So, one way you can tell how others might feel is to think about how you might feel in the same situation.”

Back to the Chairs and the kiddo who says “They feel happy” 🤢to be sitting on the carpet.

I prompt, “How might YOU feel if you were sitting on the carpet?”

Students USUALLY reply “I’d be sad/mad/disappointed” Some kiddos, who border on oppositional might say “I’d be fine”. To which I say . .”No problem” because this next lesson ALWAYS gets them.

I end the min-lesson with. “Next time you come in, there will be 8 chairs. Use empathy to make a good decision about where to sit.

The following day . . .

  • Greet at the door

  • Choose a chair or a square.

  • And there is always a bit if ‘chirping’ . . .because some sad soul chooses not to use empathy and sits in a chair again! I bring the lesson together.

  • Perserve! Kids say “Keep trying”

  • Empathy!-Kids say “I can tell how others feel”

YES! This is the best part….ready??🤗

Teacher:” Okay . .If you are sitting on the floor, and did not get to sit in a chair last time, raise your hand.”

Most carpet-sitters 🙌🏽

Teacher: If you are sitting on a chair and you sat in a chair last time, raise your hand.”

Usually about ⅝ kids raise their hand.

I ask each one . .”How might the people at the carpet feel to see you sit on a chair again?”

Now . . .just asking ONE student this question . . makes the other ‘chair sitters’ squirm. I keep asking one chair sitter after another…

✨✨✨MAGIC! in 5/24 classes . . .one ‘chair-sitter’ spontaneously leaves the chair!

I show the greatest excitement. “Oh my goodness! Class say ‘Thank you, [name]’

The class says “Thank you, Feisto!”

I say “Feisto, did you just feel your brain get stronger?” 💪 You just used empathy to make a decision. Your brain just got stronger.

The student ALWAYS gives a little smile as the feeling washes over.

“I see it on your face” it’s like Purple Bunnies.🥰

A new student takes the now empty chair . .

I say to that student..”Say thank you to Feisto” The student says “Thank you”

Do you feel Purple Bunnies because Feisto just gave up his chair for you?

The student always nods.

"Class, when people do kind things, it makes us feel good.

You know what else? How do you feel right now because you just saw someone use empathy to make a decision?

Yeah! You feel good too! Our brains are designed to feel better when we work together. We can solve more problems when we work together. So we get Purple Bunnies (from hormones and neurotransmitters) when we work well together.

And our brains🧠 grow stronger when we use empathy to make good decisions. (Brain in the Palm)"

Okay. This just leads to a waterfall of students giving up their chairs. It happens almost every time.🌊🌊🌊🌊

Now, in the few classes that this does not occur spontaneously I begin to ‘sell’ the notion of our brains getting stronger when we use empathy to make good decisions. Then I look right at the kiddo who was most reluctant to admit that others might be jealous of the chair. I look right at the student . .I ask . . . “Would you like to see how it feels to use empathy? ‘ Do you want to try it?

They always . . .always, if reluctantly, they always leave the chair and sit on the floor. I reward this with a BIG smile.

I say “Class say “Thank you! Eva!”

The class says “Thank you, Eva!” then Eva smiles. . .even just a little bit.

I reinforce, “Can you feel that? That is your brain getting stronger!”

Then another student sits in the chair, and I reinforce that we all feel good because we all saw the group benefit from a kind decision from a group member.

Third day. Usually, less chirping. By now, most classes start self-reporting “David chose not to sit in a chair! And even during the mini-lesson, I see students get out of the chair. I take a quick second to say thank you and we move on.

Now it is just a common occurrence. Sometimes, I have to ‘pause the chair switching’ because it is interfering with our next brain-growing lesson about compassion.


Young children are more than capable of making decisions based on group needs. Studies show that almost all children are well-practiced in ‘empathy’ by 2 years old. So by kindergarten, it has been a part of their brain for about 3 years. This is a great time to plant a seed about its value in their own development.

More universally designed lessons to develop empathy authentically.

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