With an increasing focus in schools on Social and Emotional Learning (SEL), investigators are becoming increasingly interested in understand the role of children’s moral emotions and behaviours, such as empathy (and its related emotional responses) and prosocial behaviour (i.e., helping, sharing, volunteering). To understand the role of empathy and its related responses to school success, we first differentiate between the emotional responses of empathy, sympathy, personal distress. Empathy refers to the emotional response to another’s distress that is the same, or very similar to what another is feeling, whereas sympathy reflects individuals’ feelings of concern for another. Sympathy is thought, in part, to stem from empathy. Personal distress refers to a more self-focused reaction involving anxiety or discomfort in response to another’s distress. We believe it is important to differentiate between these responses because such emotions are thought to motivate whether children respond to others with prosocial behaviour.
Next, we discuss associations between individuals’ moral emotions or empathy-related responding (a broad term that encompasses empathy, sympathy, and personal distress), prosocial or moral behaviour, and school success. Although there is evidence of direct relations among these responses and children’s academic competence, it is likely that the relations are indirect, through individuals’ high social competence and peer acceptance, the quality of the teacher–child relationship, and low problem behaviours. That is, children’s prosocial behaviour and empathy are thought to impact children’s academic motivation and school competence through children’s positive relationships with peers and teachers and their low problem behaviours (see Figure 1).
Finally, we conclude by examining ways in which educators can promote children’s prosocial behaviours and empathy-related responding. Although more research in this area is needed, there are promising teacher practices and school-based approaches that may foster positive social behaviour and school success. The associations reported in this work highlight the importance of these constructs in understanding children’s SEL in the school context.