3 Ways to Emphasize Empathy & Community During the First Weeks of School

Effective leadership is all about people – but not just ‘big’ people! Our ‘little’ people (aka our students!) not only need their teacher leaders to model empathy and community, but they also need to be offered opportunities to build these skills for themselves. Below are a few of my time-tested suggestions to build a strong sense of community in your classroom, while teaching your students the importance of empathy. 


  1. The Peace Wall

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Or Peace Table, Peace Corner, Peace Closet, etc. The ‘Peace Wall’ is completely adaptable to whatever your classroom layout allows. I have tried it in two variations – a ‘Peace Table’ setup in the back of the room, and the ‘Peace Wall’ off to the side.  It is important that no matter where you set up your Peace station, it is off to the side so students can access it both during group work and during your whole-class carpet lessons (for elementary). 2-3 students should be able to be at the Peace Wall without interfering with other students’ learning, and should also have enough privacy that others aren’t interjecting into their conversation.


The purpose of a Peace Wall is multifold – it allows students to take the driver’s seat in their own conflict resolution, which allows you to focus primarily on instruction. It also requires students to address conflict as it arises – not to have it to fester and bother them throughout the day/week/month. Lastly, it helps reinforce the ‘community’ of your classroom. It let’s students see that conflict is ok, as long as you can find ways to work through it in a way that is amenable to everyone. So, how does it work? unnamed-3.jpg

  • I start with a lesson about peaceful figures in society (hello, Social Studies integration!). We do a class ‘K,W,L’ chart and students crowdsource what they already know about ‘peace’ and ‘peacefulness’. I fill in the ‘Want to Know’ portion, to help guide us through how this relates to our classroom (you can always add additional ‘Want to Know’s as they arise from students!). We then crowdsource what we have learned about what it means to be ‘peaceful’.
  • I introduce students to our ‘courteous language’ prompts (thank you, please, excuse me, etc.) and walk them through the Peace Wall. First, I model conflict resolution with a student. Then, I invite two students up to model resolution between each other for the class. Click here for the Peace Wall Script
  • Students then create their own ‘peaceful’ promises/goals/etc. and we post them on peace signs around our K,W,L chart. IMG_5073.jpg
  • Tips/Remember:
    • Prompt and praise students during the first month or so. “Wow, I am so impressed by ____ and ____ decision to go to the Peace Wall!” ” I see ____ and ____ at the Peace Wall solving a problem!”
    • You may need to have a ‘peer mediator’ when students struggle to come to a resolution. I always told my students that I was the last resort – they should go to the Peace Wall, then ask a classmate to help them if they can’t come to a resolution, then come to me.
    • You will need to keep an eye on your students now and then to ensure they are not spending “too much” time at the Peace station.
    • Students should be able to autonomously go to the Peace Wall at any time. Model for them how to ”invite” their classmates to go with them. Once a student has been “invited” they can not opt-out of going.


2. Broken Hearts

This has *surely* been done in numerous different ways across the internet, but this is how I used it in my classroom. Each student is given their choice of paper, and is IMG_1596.jpgasked to cut out a heart. They should write their name in the middle of their heart, and can even take a few minutes to decorate it if you so choose.

Take a list of commonly heard hurtful phrases such as:

  • “I don’t want to play with you”
  • “You aren’t very smart”
  • “I don’t like you”
  • “Your shirt/shoes/etc. are ugly”

Tell students that every time they have had someone say this to them, or if this phrase hurts their feelings upon hearing it, they should tear a piece of their heart. After all phrases have been read, give each student one small piece of tape. The tape represents the phrase “I’m sorry”. After students apply the “sorry” tape, have them discuss if the word “sorry” erased all of the tears in their hearts. Some students may not even be able to tape up all of the piece they tore, so more conversation could focus on the frequency of saying hurtful things vs. how often we apologize.

This lesson is meant to be preventative – if students have a visual representation of how words can hurt someone, you can reference this exercise throughout the year as a means of curbing hurtful behavior and speech.


3. Appreciations

“Appreciations” are my favorite part of the day, but in order for them to work you have to implement them with fidelity. At the end of each class period/day – after students have packed up and are waiting to transition/leave – students get in a circle and can offer “appreciations” to their classmates for a total of 3-5 mins.

Appreciations can be as simple as “I appreciate when Jose let me borrow his pencil” or as deep as “I appreciate that Sara went to the Peace Wall with me, and now we can be friends again”. As the teacher leader of the class, it is great for you to model appreciations yourself – “I appreciated when Leon and Francisco helped me pick up the papers that fell on the floor”- to get the ball rolling. Eventually, students will get to a point where they remind you that it is time to do “Appreciations” and will be eager to share their love for one another!




Do you have insights, suggestions, or resources you would like to share related to this post? Comment below or connect with me on Twitter @CarolineDGoldin

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