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Lesson Plans

Lesson plan: Build empathy with stories about disabilities

June 8, 2017

Full Lesson


Are you an empathetic person? Use these stories about individuals with disabilities, all conceived of, filmed and edited by middle and high school students, to explore empathy, common feelings of difference and how stories help us walk in another person’s shoes. The series is called Limitless: Breaking the bounds of disability. 


Civics, social studies, English



Estimated time


Essential question

What does it mean to have empathy for others?

Warm up activity

  • Spider web activity: What is empathy?
    • Brainstorm with your class the meaning of ’empathy’ by creating a spider web. Write the word “Empathy” in a circle and draw lines out from it. Ask your students what they know about the word empathy. See how far you get and then give the definition to your students. Feel free to use your own or this one from Psychology Today: “the experience of understanding another person’s condition from their perspective. You place yourself in their shoes and feel what they are feeling.” Once they have this, ask them again, what is empathy? What does it mean to be empathetic? What is the role of self-awareness?

Main activities

  • Watch the following PBS NewsHour Student Reporting Labs videos: “The Boy Superman” and “Able to Volunteer.” Note: The person with the awesome hat next to the (real) Superman is his schoolteacher. If you think this is impressive, wait until you meet his mother.

  1. Discuss the following questions:
    • What are some examples of daily tasks that may come easily for you but not for someone with an intellectual or physical disability? What role did creative solutions play in these videos for those living with a disability?
    • Why do some disabilities cause discomfort? What can you do to get past feelings of discomfort?
    • While sympathy comes from our imagining how we would handle a similar situation, empathy involves focusing on the other person’s experiences and perceptions and a desire to connect with them as a human being. How can you show a disabled person empathy rather than sympathy?
    • How did empathy help Jerry from “The Boy Superman” and the students from “Able to Volunteer” find happiness?
    • All of us us have various challenges that we must face on a daily basis. What challenges are you confronted with, and how does empathy from others help you?
  2. Brainstorm ideas about how to be empathetic towards your fellow students, regardless of what challenges they may face. Create a poster highlighting your ideas and post it in the classroom.
  3. Write a script for a play with two or three other students that demonstrates how to show another person empathy. You can use quotes from the stories you watched or make up your own dialogue. The person’s challenge need not be a disability, but remember to show others empathy by remaining respectful and treating all disabilities with seriousness and dignity. The plays should fulfill the following criteria:
    • Provide at least two creative and concrete examples of empathy towards an individual to surmount a particular challenge.
    • Be respectful and courteous at all times.
    • Be three to five minutes in length.
    • Perform the plays for your classmates and discuss the following questions:
      • Which play was most effective or provided the most helpful examples of empathy? Why?
      • How can you implement some of your classmates’ ideas at your school?

Extension activities

Watch more videos in the Student Reporting Labs series “Limitless: Breaking the bounds of disability” to find additional examples of the role empathy plays in people’s lives.

Read the PBS NewsHour story, ‘How feeling respected transforms a student’s relationship to school‘ which discusses empathy between teachers and students.

Read this Edutopia story, 4 Proven Strategies for Teaching Empathy which has ideas for working with younger students and nurturing metacognition about one’s state of empathy.

By Victoria Pasquantonio, PBS NewsHour education editor, and Amanda Wilcox, NewsHour Classroom intern.

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