How Can I Treat Someone with Dignity?

In this lesson, students will explore the ways people with a critical health condition or disease might feel, as well as various ways they can support and show compassion toward those who are living with an illness.
Grade Level


Activities will help students:

  • define dignity and compassion
  • distinguish between empathy and sympathy
  • explore how people with a critical health condition might feel
  • identify examples of how to treat people with dignity
Essential Questions
  • How can we show compassion to people who are seriously ill?
  • What are ways that we can treat people with dignity?
  • What is the difference between being sympathetic and being empathetic?


Say the word disease and a lot of people cringe. Sometimes people are so afraid of disease that it causes them to shun others who have a critical illness or treat them like they are less than human. This can lead to feelings of isolation during a time when the person who is ill might already feel fairly alone. How can we support our friends who have a critical health condition, such as diabetes, asthma, HIV/AIDS or cancer? What can we do to encourage others to act with more compassion toward peers with illnesses?

In this lesson, students will explore the ways people with a critical health condition or disease might feel, as well as various ways they can support and show compassion toward those who are living with an illness.


compassion [kuhm-pash-uhn] (noun) a feeling of wanting to help someone who is experiencing misfortune, such as illness 

dignity [dig-ni-tee] (noun) worthiness; the quality of being worthy of respect

disease [dih-zeez] a sickness, such as asthma, cancer or diabetes, that causes the body not to work normally 

empathy [em-puh-thee] (noun) the understanding of or the ability to identify with another person’s feelings or experiences 

stigma [stig-muh] (noun) a negative and often unfair belief commonly associated with something, such as disease

sympathy [sim-puh-thee] (noun) the feeling of being sorry for someone else’s misfortune


  1. Think about a friend, schoolmate, family member or fictional character who has a serious medical condition, such as asthma, cancer or diabetes. How do others treat this person? Does this person’s health condition affect the way others treat him?
  2. Look at the statements on the Anticipation Guide. Do you agree or disagree with what they say about the treatment of people who have serious health issues? After completing Step 1, pick the statement you disagree with most and discuss your reasons with a partner.
  3. With your partner, complete Compassion and Dignity. For the words compassion and dignity, you should: a) write a definition, b) identify characteristics, c) provide examples and d) brainstorm non-examples. (Note: Have students share their answers and compile them into a whole-class word map.)
  4. Now read The Stigma of Disease. While reading, think about whether the students who have medical conditions in the scenarios are being treated with dignity. As you answer the questions, consider how their peers could show them compassion. Share with your partner three ways you think the students’ peers could show them compassion, two ways the students are not being treated with dignity and one way the scenarios made you feel.
  5. Then complete Steps 2 and 3 of the Anticipation Guide(Note: Take a quick poll of the class to identify the statements students changed their minds about.)
  6. As a class, make a T-chart categorizing your responses from The Stigma of Disease as examples of empathy or sympathy. Then write definitions of the words empathy and sympathy(Note: Have students discuss how the words compassion, dignity, empathy and sympathy relate to one another.)
  7. Work in small groups. Visit the website Teens Health Diseases and Conditions and choose one of the articles titled, “My friends has _____. How can I help?” Read the article with your group to identify the challenges people with that particular disease might face and what others can do to support them.
  8. As a group, use your research to draft a code of conduct that outlines ways people can show compassionate care for those who have the disease you chose. (Note: If teaching this lesson at the same time as students are learning about the Bill of Rights, consider having students draft a Patient’s Bill of Rights instead.)
Extension Activity

Research organizations, such as St. Jude Children’s Hospital or Make-A-Wish Foundation, that support people inflicted with various diseases, and brainstorm ways that your class can help.

Teaching Tolerance collage of images

Welcome to Learning for Justice—Formerly Teaching Tolerance!

Our work has evolved in the last 30 years, from reducing prejudice to tackling systemic injustice. So we’ve chosen a new name that better reflects that evolution: Learning for Justice.

Learn More