Written by Houston Kraft, Co-founder CharacterStrong

Research tells us that the average student today has as much anxiety as the average psychiatric patient in the 1950’s. We can attribute this staggering statistic to any number of things:

  • Information Overload: Young people have access to endless, unfiltered information at their fingertips. They are exposed to constant data, news, and imagery – and a lot of it is negative.
  • Social Media Madness: The comparison game is amplified online and the pressure to have and live the perfect Instagram life is exhausting.
  • The Achievement Culture: The consistent messaging that your worth is attached to your GPA, your résumé, your sport statistics, or the college you attend is toxic. For many students, anything less than an “A” feels like an “F.”

The Student Anxiety and Empathy Connection

In her practical and insightful book Unselfie, Dr. Michele Borba explains that as anxiety goes UP, empathy goes DOWN. And it makes sense: the more stressed or worried I am about what is going on in my life, the harder time I have thinking about what is going on in yours.

As a result, empathy has dropped 40% in college students since 2000. Dr. Borba calls this inverse relationship between student anxiety and empathy the “Empathy Gap.” And as the Gap widens, we will continue to see:

  • A Mental Health Crisis: Suicide is the second leading cause of death for teenagers.
  • Reduced Learning: The research around ACES (adverse childhood experiences) tells us that the higher the ACES score, the greater risk for anxiety. Neuroscience tells us that when a student doesn’t feel psychologically safe at school, academic learning is nearly impossible.
  • An Increase in School Violence: It’s not a stretch to connect decreasing empathy with increasing violence. Most instances of school violence happen in circumstances where students feel disconnected, misunderstood, or isolated – the opposite of school culture of empathy and caring.

Social and emotional learning is not another thing on our plates – it IS the plate!  If we don’t put an intentional and consistent focus on social and emotional skills, we are piling academic content on top of relationally broken plates. We are also missing a critical opportunity to meet a growing cultural need by educating the Whole Child.

Designing Mindfulness Interventions for Student Well-Being

Last academic year, the CLIP Oporto International School formally implemented Mindfulness interventions and measured their impact. Learn about the specific interventions they followed and their impact on student well-being.


Social and Emotional Learning Activities

Here are three practical strategies and exercises to dig into the challenging and critical work of reducing student anxiety and closing the Empathy Gap in your classroom with social and emotional learning:

The Temperature Check

As students walk in, have them digitally or physically complete an entry task that starts with these three questions: 1) Name, 2) On a scale of 1-5, how are you doing today? (1 is really struggling, 5 is doing really well), and 3) Why did you put that number? 1 and 2 are required questions, 3 is optional.

After these three questions, have a question related to previous learning or an anticipatory set for today’s content. This is both an empathy building strategy for you as the educator who is receiving this information (be sure to connect with any 1’s from a given class period) as well as an empathy building tool for the class.

For example, “Before we get started today, I want to let you know that three people have checked in at a ‘1’ today. It could be the person next to you, so it’s a good reminder to show up today with kindness and patience.”

Where’s Wall-do

Use a space on one wall in your classroom that can be used as a daily or weekly tool for the social and emotional skill of emotional/self-awareness.

RULER from Yale’s Center for Emotional Intelligence created this simple chart of 100 emotion words. As students walk in, have them pull from a bucket of clothespins and “check in” by clipping their primary emotion for that day. A simple way to

  • have students practice self-awareness,
  • expand student’s emotional vocabulary,
  • and, give you immediate insight into your classes collective emotional state that day.

If 60% are clipping the word “anxious,” it may change how you teach that class! It can also give students a moment of collective empathy that they aren’t alone in any of their wide-range of emotions.

True Story Fridays

Every Friday, reserve 5-10 minutes at the end of class to share a story from your “real life.” If you want to give students a voice in the process, provide them with a list of “story titles” and/or questions they can ask you about who you are as a person, not just as an educator.

This can help cultivate the student-to-teacher empathy dynamic that can be critical to trust-building and deep, authentic learning. You can also use this time for students to practice asking meaningful questions to one another.

As the Empathy Gap widens due to student anxiety, our work to explicitly teach the social and emotional learning skills of kindness, compassion, and connection becomes more important than ever. The pathway to a more empathetic world is to TEACH it!


  • De Venter M, Demyttenaere K, Bruffaerts R. “The relationship between adverse childhood experiences and mental health in adulthood. A systematic literature review”. Tijdschr Psychiatr 2013;55(4):259-68.
  • Delizonna, Laura. “High-Performing Teams Need Psychological Safety. Here’s How to Create It.” Harvard Business Review, 24 Aug. 2017, hbr.org/2017/08/high-performing-teams-need-psychological-safety-heres-how-to-create-it.
  • Leahy, Robert. “How Big a Problem Is Anxiety?” Psychology Today, 30 Apr. 2008, psychologytoday.com/us/blog/anxiety-files/200804/how-big-problem-is-anxiety.
  • Vanorman, Alicia, and Beth Jarosz. “Suicide Replaces Homicide as Second-Leading Cause of Death Among U.S. Teenagers.” Population Reference Bureau, 9 June 2016, www.prb.org/suicide-replaces-homicide-second-leading-cause-death-among-us-teens.
  • Borba, Michelle. “Unselfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-about-Me World.” Touchstone, 2017.
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