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Fostering Empathy in Elementary Classrooms Through Virtual Exchanges

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Participate and share : Poster
Poster presentation

Friday, December 4, 1:30–2:30 pm PST (Pacific Standard Time)

Chelsea Donaldson  
Learn about Empatico’s evaluation study that measured the impact of virtual exchanges on young students’ empathy and explore how to apply these research findings in the classroom.

Audience: Curriculum/district specialists, Principals/head teachers, Teachers
Skill level: Beginner
Attendee devices: Devices not needed
Topic: Social emotional learning
Grade level: PK-5
ISTE Standards: For Students:
Global Collaborator
  • Students use digital tools to connect with learners from a variety of backgrounds and cultures, engaging with them in ways that broaden mutual understanding and learning.
  • Students use collaborative technologies to work with others, including peers, experts or community members, to examine issues and problems from multiple viewpoints.
For Educators:
  • Create experiences for learners to make positive, socially responsible contributions and exhibit empathetic behavior online that build relationships and community.

Proposal summary


Our society becomes increasingly interconnected each day. Students must learn how to relate to, understand, and ultimately empathize with peers from different backgrounds and cultures in order to develop successful relationships at school, at home, and in the workplace. Many educators and policymakers recognize the need for a holistic approach to education that includes practical opportunities for students to develop these key socioemotional learning (SEL) skills. However, fostering empathy and understanding of others has its challenges.

As humans, we have a tendency to feel more empathy for people whom we perceive to be similar to us (as opposed to people we perceive as different), driving what is known as the intergroup empathy gap. [1] To narrow this gap among future generations, students must have opportunities to realize their shared humanity with diverse peers and foster students’ empathy toward others who are different.

In response to this need, Empatico was created as a free online tool for teachers to promote empathy in students around the world. Empatico uses video conferencing technology to connect primary school classrooms from different communities through virtual exchanges, which refer to online video interactions between two groups of students from different parts of the world. To structure the virtual exchange, teachers use Empatico lessons that apply research from child development, education, and intergroup relations literature to promote meaningful connections between partner classes and help students practice key SEL skills in the process. Virtual exchanges that follow Empatico lessons are referred to as “Empatico Exchanges.” Each Empatico lesson enables students to: (1) recognize similarities, (2) share personal stories, (3) appreciate differences, and (4) practice perspective taking and empathy skills with their partner class. These factors are known to help improve children’s perceptions of peers from other sociocultural identity groups. [2] In fact, research suggests that having these positive experiences with diverse peers early in life, particularly between the ages of 7-10, can strongly influence how children will perceive these groups in the future.[3]

Evaluations of other educational virtual exchange programs have found they can help reduce nervousness and unfavorable perceptions towards others who are different [4], build knowledge about other sociocultural groups [5], improve perceptions among groups involved in regional conflicts [6], promote cultural openness (willingness to learn about other cultures) [7], and increase perceived similarities and respect for other cultures.[8]

To build on this research and solidify Empatico’s evidence of impact, we designed a quasi-experimental study in collaboration with Stanford University researchers to investigate how Empatico virtual exchanges (in combination with a teacher fellowship) could improve students’ socioemotional outcomes and perceptions of peers from different communities. In this study, we refer to “program” as the combination of participating in the teaching fellowship and Empatico exchanges.


Participants included students ages 6-11 (n = 498) whose teachers opted into the present research study. Students in the treatment group (n = 264) participated in Empatico exchanges, while students in the comparison group (n = 234) did not. All treatment group teachers took part in one of two teaching fellowships to guide them through the Empatico experience. Teachers were chosen for the fellowships based on their commitment to Empatico's mission, geographical location, and ability to lead/influence others to action. Teachers in one of the fellowships had never participated in Empatico exchanges before, while most teachers (and students) in the other fellowship had completed at least one Empatico exchange before the start of their fellowship.

The comparison group was created in two ways: In the first approach, teachers who taught 2+ classes surveyed two of their classes-- one class who participated in Empatico as the treatment group and another class that did not participate in Empatico as the comparison group (we call this the “multi-class teacher approach”). In the second approach, teachers who only taught one class nominated another classroom in their school who was of a similar age range as their own, but who did not participate in Empatico (we call this the “nominated colleague approach”).

Assignment of students to the treatment or comparison group was quasi-random, under the assumption that most students are randomly assigned to a particular classroom at the start of the school year and therefore randomly placed in the treatment or control groups. In addition, multi-class teachers did not select their treatment classes to partake in Empatico exchanges on the basis of socioemotional traits. We validate this assumption based on qualitative evidence from early submissions of teacher baseline surveys (n = 27). Twenty-four teachers explained their decision to choose a particular class to do Empatico exchanges on one of three bases: scheduling availability, students fitting the target age range, or the classroom that they spend most time with (e.g., homeroom). The remaining three teachers reported that learning about other cultures aligns with this class’s social studies curricula or learning progression. This evidence supports the notion that most teachers do not select particular classes to partake in Empatico because of traits that correlate with empathy or other socioemotional characteristics.

Preliminary analyses revealed that there were no significant differences in pre-survey scores between the treatment and comparison groups in both approaches (i.e., multi-class approach and nominated colleague approach), other than what would have been expected due to random chance. This further supports the claim that assignment of students to each group was “as good as random.”

Eighty-eight percent of students in the study sample are from the United States, 3% from Canada, and 4% from Honduras, 4% from Israel, and 1% from Mexico. Of the treatment group classes who participated in Empatico virtual exchanges, 60% had a domestic partner classroom (i.e., a partner classroom located in the same country) and 40% had an international partner classroom.

Survey Instruments:
The student survey included questions measuring cognitive empathy (perspective-taking), excitement about meeting a child from another country, interest/curiosity in becoming friends with a child from another part of the world, self-other overlap (perceived similarity) with children from other countries, norms among their friends and parents regarding interactions with a child from another country, and knowledge of life in other countries. The two questions regarding interest/curiosity and knowledge were original questions, while the remaining five were adapted versions of questions from previously published questionnaires investigating empathy and intergroup perceptions among children ages 5 to 11 years old.[9] Questions were on a 3-, 4-, or 5-point Likert scale, many of which included visuals to aid younger students. All questions and answer options were tested for comprehension among a group of 17 U.S. third graders (ages 8-9) and one U.S. first grader (age 7), and then revised based on feedback from the students and teachers. Only questions that were included in both the 2018 and 2019 versions of the survey were included in this analysis (i.e., seven questions). In order to more accurately estimate the effects of the program, we converted Likert scale outcomes into binary variables: positive answers adopted a value of 1 and negative or neutral answers adopted a value of 0.

Teachers were also surveyed to gain relevant demographic data of the teacher, students and school environment.

Teachers in both groups administered the survey to their students twice: once before the treatment group teachers began their fellowship and again after the fellowship period ended.

Teachers and students in the treatment group participated in various Empatico exchanges over the course of 6-9 months. Empatico lessons leverage psychology and education research to maximize personal connections between students, while also covering various academic subjects that align with national and international education standards. Each lesson contains three separate stages: Preparation, Interaction, and Reflection. The first stage prepares students for meeting their partner class, the second provides an interaction structure for the live video exchange, and the third guides them through a reflection of their learning from the exchange. [More information on Empatico materials can be found at] A compliance check confirmed that all treatment group teachers followed an Empatico lesson in at least 3 exchanges, and teachers in the nominated colleague comparison group maintained their regularly scheduled curriculum without participation in Empatico.

Teachers in the treatment group received a stipend for their fellowship, which also required them to participate in this research study. Nominated comparison group teachers (as well as multi-class teachers who surveyed another class) received a gift card for their participation.

This study was approved by the Administrative Panel on Human Subjects in Non-Medical Research at Stanford University (FWA00000935 SU). Informed consent was obtained from all parents of the students included in this study.

Data Analyses:
The student sample in the present analysis consisted of 20 matched pairs of treatment and comparison classrooms who completed both the pre- and post-surveys (n = 498). To evaluate whether Empatico exchanges had a positive effect on student outcomes, we used a linear regression model (clustering standard errors at the classroom level) and controlled for class-level fixed effects (i.e., aspects of the student’s classroom that don’t vary over time). We also controlled for languages spoken at home, self-reported skin color, whether the student has siblings, the classroom to which they belong, and whether the student has had a video virtual exchange session prior to the start of this evaluation (regardless of whether or not the virtual exchange was done using Empatico specifically).


Results revealed that children who participated in Empatico exchanges were 19.8% more likely to practice empathy in their daily life and 15.1% more likely to feel they have a lot in common with children from different countries, compared to what would have been expected otherwise in the matched control group. The remaining five outcomes had positive treatment effects, though were not statistically significant. See details below.

Student Outcomes:
(TE=Treatment Effect)

Outcome (1): Excitement around meeting a child from another country
TE: 0.081 (p=0.158)

Outcome (2): Cognitive empathy (perspective-taking)
TE: 0.198 (p=0.003**)

Outcome (3): Peer norms regarding interacting with a child from another country
TE: 0.082 (p=0.277)

Outcome (4): Household norms regarding interacting with a child from another country
TE: 0.050 (p=0.125)

Outcome (5): Perceived similarities with children from other countries
TE: 0.151 (p=0.023*)

Outcome (6): Interest/curiosity in becoming penpal friends with a child from other part of the world
TE: 0.060 (p=0.154)

Outcome (7): Perceived knowledge about other parts of the world
TE: 0.085 (p=0.196)

Significance values: * = p < 0.05; ** = p < 0.01

To further investigate potential effects of the five outcomes that were nonsignificant, we conducted a post-hoc exploratory analysis assessing differences between pre-post scores in the full treatment sample without use of the comparison group (n=818). In this analysis, all outcomes were positive, and three of the five were statistically significant.

Additional research is planned to understand the interactions among how classroom location, homogeneity of the school, and dosage of Empatico exchanges affects these results. Qualitative analyses of student responses (regarding their perceptions of children from other places) are also underway. These analyses should be complete by the end of 2019.


As mentioned previously, humans have a tendency to feel more empathy toward other individuals whom they perceive to be similar to themselves. To narrow this gap among future generations, students must have educational experiences that help them realize their shared humanity with diverse peers (ie, recognize commonalities) and to foster empathy toward others who are different (ie, intergroup empathy). The positive results in the present study add important insights to the existing literature on intergroup relations. In addition, it is the first study (to our knowledge) that investigates the effects of virtual exchanges on young students’ empathy.

Our findings suggest that virtual exchange programs focused on increasing empathy, such as Empatico, can help narrow the intergroup empathy gap by empowering students with the skills to practice empathy more frequently and toward a wider group of people, as well as showing them through first-hand experiences that people around the world are more similar than they had previously thought. Because Empatico lessons are specifically designed to highlight similarities and foster empathy between partner classmates, students are constantly reminded to look for commonalities as well as appreciate the different perspectives they discover. Once they encounter differences, they’re taught to practice perspective taking skills and “see the world through their partner’s eyes” to understand how their partner’s culture, language, appearance or other factors may influence the way they perceive the world. With this intentional design in mind, it is unsurprising that our most significant results are related to empathy and perceiving similarities with children from other countries.

Our study also found some support for the secondary transfer effect theory, which postulates that positive intergroup experiences may not only change a person’s attitudes toward the group with whom they’re interacting, but also toward other outgroups (i.e., identity groups different from one’s own). [10] The intergroup questions in our survey focused specifically on “children from different countries” because this is one of the broadest and most generalizable outgroups-- from the child’s point of view, it encompasses all people in the world who are not from their own country. Interestingly, the raw data showed that even students whose partner classmates were located in their own country felt they had a lot more in common with children from other countries after participating in Empatico. In line with the secondary transfer effect theory, this could be because these students learned they had more in common than expected with peers from their own country, and then applied this learning to peers from other countries as well. We look forward to exploring these effects further in future evaluations.

In brief, this study has both scientific and educational importance: Our results suggest that virtual exchanges like those completed with Empatico have the potential to strengthen intergroup relationships and narrow the intergroup empathy gap. Moreover, our results showed that these benefits can be achieved through education by integrating virtual exchanges into existing school curriculums. This integration benefits students immediately and directly by fostering critical socioemotional skills, such as empathy and perspective taking.


[1] Cikara, M., Bruneau, E. G., & Saxe, R. R. (2011). Us and them: Intergroup failures of empathy. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 20(3), 149-153.

[2] Davies, K., Tropp, L. R., Aron, A., Pettigrew, T. F., & Wright, S. C. (2011). Cross-group friendships and intergroup attitudes: A meta-analytic review. Personality and Social Psychology Review,15(4), 332-351.; Turner, R. N., Hewstone, M., & Voci, A. (2007). Reducing explicit and implicit outgroup prejudice via direct and extended contact: The mediating role of self-disclosure and intergroup anxiety. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 93(3), 369. ; Pinel, E. C., & Long, A. E. (2012). When I’s meet: Sharing subjective experience with someone from the outgroup. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 38(3), 296-307.; Stathi, S., Cameron, L., Hartley, B., & Bradford, S. (2014). Imagined contact as a prejudice‐reduction intervention in schools: The underlying role of similarity and attitudes. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 44(8), 536-546.

[3] Raabe, T., & Beelmann, A. (2011). Development of ethnic, racial, and national prejudice in childhood and adolescence: A multinational meta-analysis of age differences. Child Development, 82(6), 1715-1737

[4] White, F. A., Abu-Rayya, H. M., & Weitzel, C. (2014). Achieving twelve-months of intergroup bias reduction: The dual identity-electronic contact (DIEC) experiment. International Journal of Intercultural Relations, 38, 158-163.

[5] White, F. A., Abu-Rayya, H. M., & Weitzel, C. (2014). Achieving twelve-months of intergroup bias reduction: The dual identity-electronic contact (DIEC) experiment. International Journal of Intercultural Relations, 38, 158-163. ; Walther, J. B., Hoter, E., Ganayem, A., & Shonfeld, M. (2015). Computer-mediated communication and the reduction of prejudice: A controlled longitudinal field experiment among Jews and Arabs in Israel. Computers in Human Behavior, 52, 550-558.

[6] Bruneau, E. G., & Saxe, R. (2012). The power of being heard: The benefits of ‘perspective-giving’ in the context of intergroup conflict. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 48(4), 855-866.

[7] Cameron, L., & Swift, H. (2017). One Globe Kids in action: evaluating an online platform for changing social attitudes in young children (EHRC).

[8] Virtual Exchange Coalition. MIT Saxelab Research Partnership.

[9] Garton, A. F., & Gringart, E. (2005). The Development of a Scale to Measure Empathy in 8-and 9-Year Old Children. Australian Journal of Educational & Developmental Psychology, 5, 17-25. ; Cameron, L., Rutland, A., Brown, R., & Douch, R. (2006). Changing children's intergroup attitudes toward refugees: Testing different models of extended contact. Child Development, 77(5), 1208-1219.

[10] Pettigrew, T. F. (2009). Contact’s secondary transfer effect: Do intergroup contact effects spread to non-participating outgroups. Social Psychology, 40(2), 55-65.

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Chelsea Donaldson, Empatico

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