Best Books for Teaching Empathy in Kindergarten, First, and Second Grade

May 9, 2022

In today’s post, we are talking all about empathy! I am sharing a bunch of my favorite read-alouds for learning about empathy and why I like each one. I will let you know that I actually share all this information in video/audio format if you want to watch that, just click below:

To read this information instead, just keep scrolling!

Now before I dive into the picture books, let me share some things to keep in mind when teaching empathy to our youngest learners. A while ago, empathy was taught as “putting yourself in someone else’s shoes” to see how they might be feeling, but realistically it is impossible to know exactly how someone else experiences things. So keeping this in mind, there are 3 main things we want to focus on when teaching our youngest students about empathy.

1. recognize emotions and observe body language

In order to feel empathetic towards others, we really need to be able to recognize others’ emotions and observe their body language to see how they may be feeling. Empathy is a skill that takes a lot of time to develop, so having students recognize and identify different emotions and how they present themselves in others is a great place to start.

2. embrace similarities and differences within diversity

Even while we cannot know exactly how someone else is feeling, we can make many connections with them with our own experiences. Humans are diverse in so many ways and while we can recognize those differences, we can also make connections and share similarities amongst the experiences we have. These connections we make help us empathize with others!


3. have discussions around book characters and make connections

Especially in the younger grade, books and characters are a great place for students to begin learning about empathy. Picture books mimic real-life situations our students will face, but they take the personal feelings out of it. This way students can talk about the scenario, what they might do and what others did in that situation.

Keeping these things in mind when teaching empathy, I have 5 favorite books to use when teaching this skill that I think your kindergarten, first, grade, and second-grade students will enjoy!

The Rabbit Listened by Cori Doerrfeld

This story is about a little child, Taylor who builds a huge block tower he is proud of only for it to come crashing down. Naturally, he feels upset and a bunch of animal friends notice he is feeling sad. They each come over with their own way to help Taylor feel better. Some suggest talking, yelling, throwing the blocks away, hiding, etc. but none of these are good solutions for Taylor.

Then a rabbit comes along and just sits near Taylor and listens to him and waits until Taylor expresses what will help him feel better! This book is great because it helps students recognize that we all have different ways that help us feel better, but just because something helps me feel better, doesn’t mean it helps someone else and true empathy means recognizing what someone else needs! You can find this book here: The Rabbit Listened


Emma and the Whale by Julie Case

This is a fun, different one for teaching empathy. In this story, Emma lives by the ocean and she shows empathy for animals – a whale, specifically, in this case. Emma has loved sea animals for a long time and one day she notices a whale stranded on the sand bar. While she cannot communicate with the whale, she shows empathy by staying by the whale and helping it get back into the ocean so it can reconnect with its mother!

Similar to The Rabbit Listened, Emma stays with the whale providing comfort. I love this book because I am pretty sure in every classroom I’ve taught in, I have always had a few students who seemed to really connect with animals and this sweet story is a great example of how having empathy doesn’t only apply to other humans! You can see this book here: Emma and the Whale


Not So Different by Shane Burcaw

Okay, I love this book for a number of reasons – but one of the first is that it is a nonfiction book! We don’t get too many nonfiction books that teach about social-emotional learning topics, so this is a great find. Shane Burcaw and his wife, Hannah, have a YouTube channel (for adults) where they share all sorts of different stories and he shares what it’s like to have spinal muscular atrophy. He wrote this book for children to answer the questions that naturally arise when they meet Shane.

Children have a natural curiosity and that shouldn’t be stifled, but we do want to teach them how to empathize with others. Some of the questions he answers in his book include: why do you look so different? why is your head so big? what is wrong with you? how do you play with your friends? 

With each question, Shane answers them in a kid-friendly where and explains that absolutely NOTHING is wrong with him, he just may do things differently than them because of his SMA (spinal muscular atrophy). With each question, he also makes connections to students to share how in many ways, he is just like them. For example, he likes to play video games with his friends just like your students do – he just accesses them a bit differently. He likes a lot of the same foods your students do – his family just helps him eat the food. He also talks a bit about how it feels when people make fun of him, instead of getting to know him. It’s truly such a wonderful book to help students connect with those who have disabilities! You can grab this one here: Not So Different


You, Me, and Empathy by Jayneen Sanders

This next one is a pretty straightforward book to teach about empathy! This story is about a little boy who is learning about the world around him and taking note of how others behave so he knows how to behave. On each set of pages, there are different scenarios where the little boy learns how to act. For example, his mother gets sick and he remembers back to a time he was sick and his mom gave him a hug and some tissues, so he decides to get her some tissues and give her a hug. After each little scenario, there are a couple short questions to guide students through too.

I would definitely break this book up into a few days and pick a few scenarios to discuss showing empathy with your students! This book really centers around the question, “how can we show others that we care about them?” Also at the end of the book, there is a discussion guide for parents and caretakers to talk all about empathy! There are also some fun activities to promote empathy, kindness, and compassion at the end too. You can grab this here: You, Me, and Empathy


The Invisible Boy by Trudy Ludwig

I have shared this book many times before because I love it to help teach so many different skills! This book is about a little boy named Brian who feels invisible at school. His teacher doesn’t call on him often, he doesn’t act out, he doesn’t sit with anyone at lunch, etc. Until one day a new kid comes to school and notices Brian. He talks to him, invites him to play at recess, and sits with him at lunch. These little acts of reaching out help Brian feel seen.

I love this book to teach about empathy because it teaches us to notice others and not only think about ourselves. If we take a minute to look around and observe others, we can notice students like Brian who may be sitting by themselves or playing by themselves and we can reach out. We can ask them to play with us and see how they’re feeling. A little act of kindness goes a long, long way! You can see this one here: The Invisible Boy


So there are 5 of my favorite picture books for teaching all about empathy! Are any of these new to you?! Do you have others you love to use with this skill? Let me know down in the comments!

Also, if you’re looking for other picture book suggestions, you might like any of these posts:

Books to teach Conflict Resolution

Picture Books all about Friendship

Books to Teach about Feelings and Emotions


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