Module 2: Accessibility, Inclusion and Universal Design for Learning

Empathy and Flexibility in the Classroom

Equity guarantees that everyone, regardless of their identity, has the chance to grow, contribute, and develop in a classroom. Essentially, it is the fair treatment of all members of a community. It refers to a strategy for ensuring that everyone has equal access to opportunities. It acknowledges that there are advantages and barriers and that results in not everyone experiencing lessons and concepts the same way. Equity is a process that begins with divergent thinking. Recognizing the imbalance, evaluating, and then attempting to work with and resolve systematic thinking. It is the process of coming up with different ideas or solutions to a problem. It requires a commitment to necessary goals, resources, respect, continual action, and evaluation of progress.

Empathy is a useful tool to bring about equity within a classroom. As we recognize that our classes are full of diverse students, it becomes important to design instruction that promotes equity. Empathy, the ability to perceive and comprehend the emotions of others, allows us to understand and recognize different perspectives and worldviews. As we understand more ways of thinking, we are able to create spaces that intentionally allow for a plurality of approaches to thrive.

A diverse group of students having a discussion and working on their laptops.
Source: “Young woman with long blonde hair listening African man in blue shirt using laptops” by lookstudio on freepik

While accommodations cater to specific student needs, inclusive teaching anticipates common challenges and incorporates additional flexibility and approaches that benefit all students, including students with disabilities, those who have significant home or professional responsibilities, English-language learners, and first-generation students.

Understanding what empathy means, and recognizing how it can inform our conscious and subconscious teaching practices, helps us improve our ability to intentionally create equitable and inclusive learning environments.

Key Concepts:

  • Divergent thinking: a term relating to brainstorming; being conscious of biases and developing creative ways to address pre-existing assumptions and to think differently about seemingly unrelated concepts
  • Language (be concise)
  • Be adaptable and flexible facilitation: be a facilitator; teachers should view themselves as a guide rather than an instructor
  • Understanding: to empathize, to listen, to give the benefit of the doubt; remembering that students are human and have other obligations in addition to school

In this chapter you’ll explore

  • empathy and flexibility in the classroom
  • methods of empathy and flexibility in your teaching practice
  • multiple means of representation, multiple means of engagement and multiple means of action and expression
  • resources and tools for teachers and students that support empathy and flexibility in the classroom

What Is Empathy?

In its most basic form, empathy is the capacity to perceive and comprehend other people’s emotions and perspectives in a situation. Empathy, at its most advanced level, allows you to use your understanding to enhance someone else’s mood and help them through difficult situations. Empathy is sometimes mistaken with sympathy; however, the two are not equal.

Sympathy is a feeling of caring for another person and wanting them to be happier. Sympathy, unlike empathy, does not entail a shared point of view or feelings. To utilize empathy successfully, pay close attention to your student and look for verbal and nonverbal cues that will help you fully comprehend their position. Generating ideas through a collaborative divergent thinking session can help determine their needs which can then be used as a springboard to determine possible solutions. Then, put your own biases aside and acknowledge their concerns.

Elderly bearded man holding a sign, "seeking human kindness", in a subway station.

Key Concepts:

  • Consideration for various perspectives
  • Know your learners, build relationships
  • Empathy

Select a topic below, marked with an arrowhead, to reveal more information.

The three types of empathy are:

Cognitive Empathy
Emotional Empathy
Compassionate Empathy

Empathy is one of the five components of emotional intelligence.

“The notion of Emotional Intelligence consisting of five different components was first introduced by Daniel Goleman, a psychologist, and best-selling author” (Craig, 2021, as cited in Cherry, 2021).[1]

Select the “+” icons below to explore what Cherry (2018), defines as the five components of emotional intelligence (EI):

In the interactive element below, use the menu bar (☰) on the left or the arrows on the right to view the contents on all pages (3).

Define What You Say

Optical Illusion: two faces and a vase

Just because you’re right, doesn’t mean I am wrong — you just haven’t seen life from my side — Empathy.

For example, take a look at the illustration on the right. What do you see? Do you see two faces, a vase or both? This illustrates a helpful reminder to consider others’ points of view.

A common way to apply empathy in the classroom is something you probably already do: repeating things in different ways. Not only does this help to clarify the intended meaning, but this type of transparency can ease anxieties and clarify information. Sometimes we do this because our first explanation did not create the understanding we hoped it would. Sometimes students simply need to hear something in a different way to form their understanding.

This idea of repeating content in different ways can be frustrating or a natural part of teaching in diverse and equitable spaces. Empathy can help shift our mindsets from the former to the latter.

Key Concepts:

  • Provide choice
  • Clear expectations & feedback
  • Foster communication & collaboration
  • Guidance, Support
  • Feedback as a continual process



Don’t assume

In a clip from ACUE’s “Embracing Diversity in Your Classroom” module, José Bowen, president of Goucher College, discusses how to avoid spokesperson pressure.

Applying Empathy: Time Zones

An easy to see application of empathy is time zones. We can easily assume that when we refer to the time, it is clear what time zone we are using. However, when we pause, it’s not hard to realize that many of our students are are logging in from different time zones. It is simple to add time zones to due dates. Yet, this intentional act helps clarify due dates for students who are accessing material from different places. Empathy helps us see this action as helpful, inclusive, and valuable, instead of superfluous and obvious.

Consider that China, India, and Japan are among the nations that don’t use Daylight Savings Time. The idea is that some students may be unfamiliar with day light savings time, or that the time zone of Ontario is obvious (despite the fact it changes in fall and spring), and that students benefit from a precise treatment of time zones is an example of intentional empathy. In essence, you are recognizing that something obvious to you is not obvious to everyone, and you are taking time to intentionally address that. Empathetic practices build equitable environments.

Here’s an example of a due date:

Due Week 4, September 24th @ 11:59 p.m. EDT/EST.

In the beginning of class, note the class time zone and explain that classes and due dates are for this time zone only. Mentioning this allows students to plan accordingly. In your course information section, a time zone converter should be included. This link is also in the tools section.

A to-do checklist for your course:

  • Assignments, projects, quizzes, tests and exams have a due date
  • Assignments, projects, quizzes, tests and exams have a due time
  • Determine time in 24H or a.m./p.m.
  • Assignments, projects, quizzes, tests and exams have a due time zone
  • Your class time zone noted in your “About This Course” or “Intro” section of your course
  • Time zone converter link is included in “About This Course” or “Intro” documentation of your course

Applying Empathy: Classroom Expectations

Co-constructing a set of classroom expectations with students is another effective way to demonstrate and apply empathy. By asking students to help construct the rules that everyone will follow, you demonstrate empathy towards the students. Module 1 emphasized the importance of orienting your students to the classroom in an inclusive and welcoming way, and this activity is especially powerful if we consider that it is likely to happen in the first or second class.

This is an effective way to demonstrate respect for student views, and to promote participation and sense of ownership in the class. In short, this relatively short activity demonstrates empathy.

Developing inclusive pedagogical practices for the classroom is not an overnight process. It requires self-examination by faculty with regard to their own identities in relationship to their students. In addition, considering student-centred approaches that harness student experiences can deeply enrich the learning that may emerge.

Classroom Diversity and Inclusive Pedagogy


Allow your students to come up with collaborative classroom expectations, watch this video: Diversity Expert Drive 1.

Involving the people we’re serving through design as participants in the process helps ensure that our solution addresses their life holistically. It makes sure we don’t reduce people to discrete behaviors separated from the context of their lives, communities, aspirations, or value structures. This type of approach allows us to address root causes of the problems rather than symptoms, and, therefore, leads to better experiences & outcomes. People can often identify hidden opportunities and value through a co-creation process. Viewing participants as subject matter experts — involving them in the process of co-creation — we can start to see their needs differently and understand how our solutions fit into the bigger context of their lives.

Participatory Design in Practice


Are you empathetic?

There are some signs that show that you tend to be an empathetic person:

  • You are good at really listening to what others have to say.
  • People often tell you about their problems.
  • You are good at picking up on how other people are feeling.
  • You often think about how other people feel.
  • Other people come to you for advice.
  • You often feel overwhelmed by tragic events.
  • You try to help others who are suffering.
  • You are good at telling when people aren’t being honest.
  • You sometimes feel drained or overwhelmed in social situations.
  • You care deeply about other people.
  • You find it difficult to set boundaries in your relationships with other people.

Having a great deal of empathy makes you concerned for the well-being and happiness of others. It also means, however, that you can sometimes get overwhelmed, burned out or even overstimulated from always thinking about other people’s emotions.

Read more at VeryWell Mind: What Is Empathy?

Key Takeaways: Terms & Concepts

  • Equity and inclusion
  • Being present
  • Range of options
  • Reflect and allow time for reflection
  • Engagement and interaction.
  • Encourage critical thinking. Students should be active participants rather than passive recipients of information.
  • Tech as a bonus — use breakout rooms
  • Use the chat and have discussion boards

Resources & Case Studies

Kellogg’s commitment to Equity, a case study

In the video, Essentials for Online Teacher Communication [Video], educator and researcher Julie Keane discusses the essentials of online teacher-student and teacher-parent communications.

High school dropout turned Harvard faculty talks about how a simple new way of thinking helps nurture individual potential in the video, The Myth of Average [Video].


Oblique Strategies began as a card-based method for encouraging the study of lateral thinking as a means of resolving creative issues and questions. The concept of lateral thinking is to approach issues from an indirect, unique perspective. The Strategies were produced by Brian Eno in collaboration with Peter Schmidt, Eno’s close friend and mentor.

For iPhone and Android, you can now download replica copies of the Oblique Strategies as an app. The words on the cards can be simple, but their use has the ability to take projects down unforeseen paths with many twists and turns. The general principles of Oblique Strategies [PDF] may be applied to nearly any scenario. Sometimes all we need is that extra little nudge to get the ball rolling.

Creative Commons (about licensing your work)

Play with Arts & Culture (Google Experiments)

Time Zone Calculator

Interfaith Calendar: Why acknowledge holidays?

  • To respect and recognize the identity of members in our community
  • To anticipate student needs such as a different presentation date.
  • To represent and celebrate

Tools for Engagement

  • Padlet
  • Mentimeter
  • Poll Everywhere
  • Meister Task
  • Dollar Street is developed by Gapminder. Gapminder is an independent Swedish foundation with no political, religious or economic affiliations. They fight devastating misconceptions about global development with a fact-based worldview everyone can understand.


  1. Craig, H. (2021, November 25). The theories of emotional intelligence explained. Retrieved November 30, 2021, from


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Designing and Developing High-Quality Student-Centred Online/Hybrid Learning Experiences Copyright © 2022 by Seneca College; Humber College; Kenjgewin Teg; Trent University; and Nipissing University is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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