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Teaching Empathy Through Design Thinking in the Elementary Classroom

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Design thinking can help students build empathy.

Design thinking is not just about solving a problem. It is not just about creating a product.

Design thinking is about solving a problem for someone, and creating a product for someone.

When students go through the design thinking process, they create an innovative solution to another person’s problem or need.

In education (and other industries), design thinking is often used as a strategy to brainstorm and develop “wildly radical,” outside-of-the-box, and innovative ideas.

The approach tends to be associated with sticky note-style brainstorming (called “ideating”) and “prototyping.”

In addition to these skills, I’ve also noticed that design thinking helps support my students’ social emotional learning. Have you noticed this too?

In This Blog Post…

We will explore how to teach empathy through design thinking.

I will also share some teaching ideas and tips that have worked in my classroom.

But first, let’s take a look more broadly at the role of empathy in social emotional learning.

The Role of Empathy in Social Emotional Learning (SEL)

Before focusing in on empathy in design thinking, it is useful to consider the role that empathy plays in student social emotional learning in school. What is empathy? Why is empathy important for students to learn?

As teachers, we know the value of social emotional learning (SEL) in education and human development. Children and young people benefit greatly from acquiring and applying the “knowledge, skills, and attitudes” to manage emotions, establish and maintain supportive relationships, feel and show empathy, make responsible and caring decisions, and more (CASEL).

According to CASEL, empathy is a key component of social awareness.

Social awareness consists of “the abilities to understand the perspectives of and empathize with others, including those from diverse backgrounds, cultures, and contexts” (CASEL).

Social awareness is a critical, yet sometimes overlooked, part of design thinking. Designers – or in our case, students – use this social emotional skill as a means to build understanding about the problem or need in order to create human-centered products and solutions.

About Design Thinking (and Introducing the Empathy Stage)

Design thinking is an iterative, human-centered, problem-solving process that involves five key steps: (1) empathize, (2) define, (3) ideate, (4) prototype, and (5) test.

Design thinking sparks innovation, and in the classroom, invites students to explore “wildly radical” ideas.

I don’t want to spend too much time defining “design thinking” in this blog post, so if you are looking for a complete breakdown on all 5 stages and how to implement this approach in your classroom, you can check out another blog post here.

I do, however, want to specifically highlight the stage we are focusing on in this post: empathize.

Ideas for Teaching the Empathy Stage

Empathy is the first stage of the design thinking process. This stage is useful for students because it helps them develop a deeper understanding of the problem or need they are addressing.

With empathy, students can put themselves in other people’s shoes to form a connection to the problem or need.

Introducing the Empathy Stage to Students

I teach all grade levels at my school (K-5), so each class tends to have varying experience with the design thinking process.

No matter what grade level I’m teaching, when I introduce students to this first stage, I like to begin with developing a class definition of the term “empathy.”

In doing so, I’m able to guide students into a deeper discussion about the concept of empathy and how it relates to our project.

With younger students, I sometimes like to read the book  You, Me, and Empathy by Jayneen Sanders to explore themes like bullying, regulating emotions, and noticing similarities and differences between people.

Creating Guiding Questions to Shape Our Discussion Around Empathy

Many design thinking projects have essential questions. For example, in a previous blog post, I shared a project with the following essential question:

How can we design a useful and meaningful gift for family member?

In addition to essential questions, I also like to have guiding questions for each stage. I find that this strategy provides me with a helpful framework for my students to follow. Think of these guiding questions as subquestions for the “umbrella” essential question.

For the Empathy stage, you might incorporate subquestions, such as:

  • What does “empathy” mean?
  • Why is it important to care about someone else’s point of view?
  • What is the person (i.e. your partner, character in a book, community member, etc.) feeling?
  • Can you identify their feelings?
  • What problems or needs do they have?

Practicing Empathy to Understand Our “User”

Once I have introduced the term “empathy” and posed a driving question for the day, I might explain how we will practice empathy to better understand our “user.”

I do not typically say the term “user” to students – that’s usually the word that designers use to describe the person they are designing the product for.

Instead, I might say something like, “Now that we know what ’empathy’ means, let’s think about the person (family member, partner, community member, etc.) we are trying to help. What are some strategies we can use to practice empathy to learn more about that person?”

As an elementary school teacher, I gravitate toward two main approaches for having students practice empathy:

  • Interviews: Students can conduct interviews with their partner/user to learn about their problem/need. You can provide students with a list of recommended questions to ask their partner/user. Or, students can create their own.
  • Read Alouds / Read Books: Students might not have access to interview their partner/user. That’s okay! A great way to practice empathy is to read a book about the partner/user or the time period/setting in which you are exploring. You can structure this time as a whole-class read aloud, or you can have students read individually.

Of course, there are so many other ways to do this! These are just two strategies that have worked well for me in my classroom.

Keeping Empathy at the Forefront Throughout the Process

Once the Empathy stage is over, that does not mean it is time to ditch empathy altogether. In fact, empathy becomes even more important in stages 2-5.

Many elementary students have difficulty practicing empathy throughout the entire process. Perhaps this is because students become so excited about their ideas that they lose sight of the person for which they are designing the product or solution.

Brainstorming and building are so much fun!

Because of this, I like to remind students to continue to think back to their empathy interviews and books when formulating ideas and developing solutions.

Teach Design Thinking, Teach Empathy

At its very core, design thinking is human-centered.

When you teach design thinking, you teach students to empathize. You teach students social awareness and listening skills.

Empathy is the thread that ties together the entire design thinking process.

If you liked this blog post, you will also like my two other recent posts where I share more ideas for implementing design thinking in elementary classrooms:

Thank you for reading this blog post! You can let me know your thoughts in the comments down below, or you can DM me on Instagram @edtechclass. You can also reach me via email at

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