Building Compassion

“Children are so responsive that if you treat your child with kindness and consideration he too will be kind”. (Montessori, 2007).

Empathy is the awareness of someone else’s emotional experience and the ability to put oneself in another’s shoes, feeling what they feel. Compassion comes from the Latin word compati, which means to “suffer together”.   It is distinguished from empathy by the motivation to alleviate someone else’s suffering through altruistic action (Singer, 2014). That action could be as simple as expressing understanding for someone else, or as drastic as donating a kidney to save the life of another person.  We often think of compassion as a fixed characteristic; one that some children have, and others do not.  But, that’s not true.  Research has shown that children are hard-wired to be compassionate but without nurturing and support, this crucial skill can fail to mature.  (Weng, 2013).

One afternoon I witnessed my son Quinn running across the playground and launching himself off a small rock.  He sailed through the air parallel to the ground until he crashed right into a classmate, Elliot, tackling him to the ground.   His teacher and I witnessed the incident and as his teacher intervened, I went into my office.  Ugh!  I was the head of school, so in a few moments Quinn would be brought to my office. I went to await his arrival.  On my way to my office, my mind was swirling with thoughts.  “What was he thinking?”  “Why my son?”  “What will the teachers and parents think of Quinn and my parenting?”, “Why on earth did he tackle that other kid?”, “Everyone is going to be watching to see if I give Quinn preferential treatment.”, “I can’t believe he did this.  This is not how I raised him!”, etc.  I was getting angrier by the second.

A few minutes later, like clockwork, his teacher came into my office.  She said, “You look pretty upset.  Before I send Quinn in, I think it’s important you know what happened…”.  She went on to explain to me that Elliot was teasing Quinn’s friend, Amir.  Amir’s mother had recently died.  Elliot was teasing him, and Quinn overheard.  That’s when Quinn sprang into action and delivered his perceived justice. 

After listening to Quinn’s teacher, I took a few moments to process the conversation.  I hadn’t even considered the possibility that Quinn’s actions were motivated by compassion for his friend.  I had been ready to spring into action myself.  I was motivated by my concern for what others thought of me and the school. 

Once calm, I spoke to each of the boys individually.  Here is what I learned: Quinn had in fact reacted to Elliot teasing Amir.  He wanted to protect and defend his friend.  He was angry that someone could be so hurtful and reacted strongly.  Upon reflection, Quinn understood that his actions were hurtful.  But in the moment, he didn’t know what else to do.  In speaking with Elliot, I found out he also didn’t know what to do.  Elliot came from a difficult situation at home; one where compassion was not modeled.  He was overwhelmed and confused by the idea that a parent could die, and he responded hurtfully to Amir.  Amir was obviously grieving and even more hurt by the interaction with Elliot. 

Both students were still developing their ability to empathize and be compassionate.  It would have been easy to witness the situation and assume that both boys were simply being hurtful and disrespectful.  But, after some digging, it became clear that both boys needed support in developing essential social skills.  Elliot needed support in building his ability to see and feel what someone else is feeling.  Quinn needed work in expressing his compassion constructively.

In the end, Quinn decided that he would make amends with Elliot.  He saw that sticking up for a friend was honorable, and that he could do so by being assertive (without tackling).  Elliot was able to express his confusion and see how hurt Amir must have been.  Elliot also chose to make amends to Amir. That conversation was restorative. Mistakes are an opportunity to learn.  I often wonder if we could ever be able to learn without them.

I also learned an important lesson that day.  There is no more important tool for building compassion than modeling.  Children learn compassion when they experience it.  So do adults.  Because an understanding colleague had compassion for me and the boys, I was able to calm down quickly and respond compassionately as well.  Compassion is contagious.  When I spoke to the boys I was able to come out asking questions, rather than making assumptions, and the boys opened up about what they were thinking in the moment of the incident.  We were able to talk honestly about what happened, how each of them were feeling and how to repair their relationships.   How would this situation have turned out if I had responded based on assumptions and seeking to place blame.  What would the boys have learned?

Note:  The loss of Amir’s mother was a blow to our whole community.  Grief counselors and the Class Meeting were being used to process the loss during this time. 

Here are some ways to help develop compassion in our communities:

Teaching Grace and Courtesy Skills

 As we see in our example, compassion is more than just a feeling.  It involves recognizing and being sensitive to someone else’s pain and responding with helpfulness and understanding. 

  • Teach children how to recognize when someone else is suffering.  What might someone look like when they are hurting?  What might they say, or not say?  What might they do?  How might you feel in the same situation? 
  • Brainstorm and discuss sensitive and helpful responses to someone else’s suffering.  Like Elliot, someone else’s pain might be confusing or overwhelming.  What can we do with our own feelings when we see someone else is hurting?  Some ideas that might be suggested are:
        • Check in with your friend.  “Are you alright?”
        • Ask what you can do.  “How can I help?”
        • Write a note.
        • Express your sympathy. “I am very sorry.”
        • Invite them to do something with you.
        • Bring them something special.
        • Draw them a picture.


  •  Remain open and avoid making assumptions when a student appears to act without compassion. 
  •  Take time for Connection Before Correction.  Remember, the children in your classroom who need the most compassion are often the children who can be least compassionate.  Children are more likely to develop empathy and compassion and take responsibility when they know that adults are on their side. 
  • Ask for ideas from children in the moment, when someone needs compassion?  “Sierra is struggling with her coat.  How might we be able to help her?”


  • Use Curiosity Questions to dig deeper.  What happened?  What caused that to happen?  How are you feeling?  How might your friend be feeling?  What could you to do help?  How can you repair this?
  • Find opportunities for altruism.  Identify a child’s strengths and talents then make a Contribution Plan.  In what situations can you use those strengths and talents?  Who might be most helped by them?  Ask for help, directly.  “Jeremy, would you help Mara tie her shoes?  She’s still learning.”
  • Use Reflective Listening and seek understanding.  Hurting children sometimes hurt children.  Expressing understanding for hurt feelings lets a child know you are on their side.  When they know that you are on their side, children are more likely to take responsibility and focus on solutions.
  • Be Kind and Firm at the same time.  “I understand you must be angry, and you wish you could use the trinomial cube now.  You are welcome to use it when Henry is finished.” 
  • Observe to Encourage.  When a child makes progress in developing compassion, record your observations and give them encouragement.  “I noticed you helped Tia put her shoes on when it was time to go outside.  How do you feel?”
  • Redirect children to a Kindness Wheel of Choice.  


As human beings, we are hard-wired to connect with one another.  Children are especially sensitive to these connections.  The Class Meeting offers an unrivaled opportunity for children to listen to the concerns of their classmates and learn to support them in helpful ways. 

  • After a problem has been shared in the Class Meeting, ask: “How might they be feeling?” or “Have you ever felt this way?”
  • When it’s time to brainstorm for solutions, start off the conversation by asking questions like this:
        • “What could you do if you saw someone being teased?”
        • “How can you let someone know you care when their pet has died?”
        • “What things might you be able to say to let someone know you understand?”
        • “How might we help in a situation like this?”

Remember, not only do we learn when we are helped, we learn by helping others!

Until next time…


  1. Montessori, Maria. & Montessori, Mario. (2007).  Maria montessori speaks to parents: a selection of articles. Montessori-Pierson Publishing Company.
  2. Singer T, Klimecki OM. Empathy and compassionCurrent Biology. 2014;24(18):R875-R878. doi:10.1016/j.cub.2014.06.054
  3. Cherry, Kendra.  (2023). Compassion vs. empathy: what’s the difference. Verywell Mind.
  4. Weng, H. Y., & Davidson, R. J. (2013). Compassion training alters altruism and neural responses to suffering. Sage Journals, 24(7).
  5. Nelsen, Jane. DeLorenzo, Chip. (2021). Positive discipline in the montessori classroom. Parent Child Press

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About the Author

Picture of Chip DeLorenzo

Chip DeLorenzo

An experienced Montessori Educator who has served in a variety of roles for over 25 years, Chip DeLorenzo is a trainer, consultant and co-author of Positive Discipline in the Montessori Classroom. He works with teachers, parents and schools across the globe to help them to create Montessori environments that promote mutual respect, cooperation and responsibility.


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