Empathy In A (Shoe) Box Guest Post

Today I'm happy to welcome Tanya Kirschman, a counseling colleague and reader from Montana who has just recently been checking in at the Corner and always has a kind word to leave behind. Tanya is the school counselor at Highland Elementary in Billings, Montana. She has a B.S. in Elementary Education and a Master’s Degree with certification in School Counseling from Montana State University - Billings. She has over 15 years experience as a primary teacher and school counselor. Born and raised in Montana, Tanya is happily married to her pilot husband and feels blessed to be “mom” to her two handsome sons and beautiful daughter. I feel doubly blessed, once because Tanya agreed to share a lesson with us and twice because . . . it's a lesson on empathy!

Empathy in a (Shoe) Box by Tanya Kirschman

With four pairs of shoes, you can make a lasting impression on students about empathy. I hide the shoes in mismatched boxes to build the mystery and excitement about what is inside. What is inside? One holds a pair of women’s fuzzy slippers, one a heavy pair of adult snow boots. Another box has a pair of dirty football cleats, and the last (tiny) box holds a pair of toddler sneakers. I purchased all of these shoes at the local thrift store - inexpensive, and you can be really creative with the selection of shoes you’ll find there!

To begin my lesson, I announce that we are going to learn about empathy, and I define empathy as “putting yourself in someone else’s shoes," or thinking about how they (as an individual) would feel if they were in the same situation as the person they are watching or interacting with. I randomly select a student to come to the front of the class and choose a shoebox. The chosen student must take off his or her own shoes and put on the shoes from the box (except for the toddler shoes which are held their hands).

A written scenario is glued to the inside top of the box and read out loud by me or the student. For example, the situation presented with the boots is, “The person wearing these boots is running outside to play in the snow with her friends. When she gets to them, they tell her she can’t play. How do you think she feels? If you saw this happen, what could you do or say to make her feel better?” The chosen student answers the questions and a class dialogue about empathy begins. Topics discussed include understanding others'’ feelings by reading facial and body expressions and thinking about how we, ourselves, might feel in a situation.

Many times a student will put on the shoes, listen to the scenario, and say, "But I am a girl and these are boy shoes. I don't know how a boy would feel." Or, "But I'm a third grader and these are baby shoes; I don't know how a baby would feel."  Students are taught they they may never fully understand how another person is feeling because we all have differences from one another, but that they should always try to understand.  

The second step of showing empathy is acknowledging the person's feelings.  By simply stating, "You must feel _________," the person will feel heard and understood or have a chance to clarify how they are, in fact, feeling.

The third and final step is: Do something to help. Offer help or friendship to the person who may be feeling left out, upset, frustrated or sad. Appropriate responses about that person‘s needs based on how we would want to be treated are explored at this time. Continue until each pair of shoes has been worn and discussed. Students remember what empathy means in later lessons because they’ve literally 
put themselves in someone else’s shoes!

Other resources I use with this activity are:

Arnie and the New Kid by Nancy Carlson (book)
A Sunburst video entitled Put Yourself In Someone Else's Shoes: Building Character
Scenarios for which students have to write how they would respond to the person’s comment. For example, “I lost the watch my uncle gave me.” and a response might be, “You must feel upset. Would you like me to help you look for it?


Thanks again, Tanya! Your post reminded me of the book One Thousand Tracings by Lita Judge that would beautifully extend your lesson! Hop on over to Teaching Blog Addict to read all about it, then click the image to go to the author's page for activity suggestions. 

UPDATE:  Need a few more scenarios? 
Click {here} to read how this lesson went with my kiddos.


  1. Fabulous ideas! I am bookmarking this post!

  2. This is an excellent lesson plan! Hands on and interactive and I can see this leading to a great discussion and covering several points having to do with empathy. LOVE IT. Thanks for sharing.

  3. This is one of the coolest empathy lessons I have ever seen. I love it and can't wait to try it with my pre-K students. Thanks!
    Mrs. Goff's Pre-K Tales

  4. Thank you all for your kind feedback! I had a 6th grader ask me this year, "Can we do that shoe lesson again?" and it had been three years since I did it with his class. He remembered that the purpose of the lesson was empathy and what it means. I thought - wow - this lesson has some sticking power! I hope you all get the same results!

  5. I concur with the others that this is a great lesson! The effectiveness of it surely lies in the simplicity and those are the very best lessons. I think I will try it with K and 5th grade this year...if not K-5! Thanks for sharing!

  6. Awesome idea, Tanya! This is a great way to help young children understand what empathy means. Thanks so much for sharing this lesson with us.

  7. Really creative--love this idea and I will definitely try it soon!

  8. I am wondering if you can share the other scenarios used??? Great idea for teaching empathy. I love it!

    1. Here's a link to the ones I made up . . . I'll email Tanya to see if she could share hers, too!


  9. Just seeing this question now... For anyone else who is interested, these are the additional scenarios I use (along with the "baby shoes" one that is featured in the photo):

    Slippers: The person that wears these slippers was just getting ready to go to bed. they power just went out and now the house is all dark. How do you think she feels? What could you do or say to help her feel better?

    Football cleats: The person that wears these shoes uses them when he plays football. He just got tackled and was pushed into a puddle of mud. How do you think he feels? What could you do or say to help him feel better? (And I usually talk about good sportsmanship here, too. For example, "Would it be okay to offer him a hand if you're on the other team?")

    Snow Boots: The person wearing these boots is running outside to play in the snow with her friends. When she gets to them, they tell her she can't play. How do you think she feels? If you saw this happen, what could you do or say to make her feel better?

  10. This is absolutely incredible!! Thank you for the inspiration!
    Shop Signs Sheffield

  11. Two additional books that would connect well with this lesson might be: How Do I Stand in Your Shoes by Susan DeBell Stand in My Shoes: Kids Learning About Empathy by Bob Sornson Ph.D.

  12. Thank you so much for this idea. And though I'm just coming around to it over a year later, it is still a powerful, powerful, lesson. Can't wait to try it. The book resources are great too!

  13. This is fantastic. I think I will leave one of my boxes empty to portray a student having their shoes stolen or not having any shoes. There are so many different ways to incorporate this hands on idea. Thanks!!

  14. Love this! I'm going to use it with my students for sure. Thank you for sharing!

  15. You write every blog post so well. Keep the hard work going and good luck.


I really enjoy hearing from my readers; thanks for sharing your reflections with us!