Showing Compassion

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
  • explore how people with a serious illness might feel
  • identify ways to show compassion to people with diseases
  • identify examples of how to treat people with dignity
Essential Questions
  • How can we show compassion to people who have serious health problems?
  • What does it mean to treat people with dignity?
  • What are ways that we can treat people with dignity?


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. Listen as your teacher reads to you about a real-life boy named Ryan White.
  2. (Note: Read the following paragraph aloud.)

    In 1984, 13-year-old Ryan White was diagnosed with AIDS. Because people did not understand the newly discovered disease, teachers, parents and students were afraid to let him come back to school. After a long-lasting legal battle, Ryan was allowed to return to school, but he did not receive a friendly welcome. His first day back, almost half the students in the school stayed home. Some parents pulled their kids out of school permanently because they were afraid of Ryan spreading his disease. While at school, Ryan was forced to use a different bathroom than the rest of the students, he had to eat with plastic utensils that could be thrown away and he wasn’t allowed to participate in gym classes. The family was often threatened, and someone even shot a bullet through his family’s living room window one day, prompting them to move to another town.

  3. Thinking about what you just heard, brainstorm reasons why people with diseases might sometimes be mistreated.
  4. With a 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. Thinking about how Ryan White was treated might help you come up with some non-examples. (Note: Have students share their answers and compile them into a whole-class word map.)
  5. Take your examples of compassion and dignity and explain how they relate to people who are suffering illness:
  • Was Ryan White treated with dignity? Name a behavior that exemplifies how you might treat a person who is seriously ill, like Ryan, with dignity.
  • Did Ryan’s community treat him with compassion? Name one way you can show compassion to a peer who has a serious health problem.
  1. Now you are going to write a story. You have two options from which to choose:
  • Write a story from the point of view of a student who has a serious health problem. What challenges does she face? How do those challenges make her feel? What does the student wish other people would do to make her feel more respected?
  • Or write a story from the point of view of someone whose friend is seriously ill. As the friend of someone who has a health problem, how do you show compassion for your friend? What do you do to help your friend with the challenges she faces? In what ways do your actions demonstrate how people should be treated with dignity, even when they have a disease?


Extension Activity

Interview someone who has a disease about the challenge he faces and what other people could do to support him. Then share your findings with your class.

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