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Teaching Empathy to Children

Support children to learn empathy by using everyday experiences as teaching moments. 

Teaching Empathy to Children

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"Try to see things from the other person's perspective." "Put yourself in the other person's shoes." "Imagine what the other person felt like when you hurt them." If anyone has said these phrases or something similar to you, they were talking about empathy, or the ability to view a situation from another’s perspective.

Young children hugging

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You may wonder if young children can truly practice empathy, and the short answer is yes. Empathy is a two-fold experience: it's both cognitive and emotional. According to Psychology Today, the emotional component is the first to naturally develop in a child as early as infancy.

Through age-appropriate activities, empathy can continue to be developed in children as they grow and develop their cognitive skills. In this article, we'll learn more about empathy and explore ways to teach and model empathy to children up to five years of age. 

What is empathy?

Merriam-Webster defines empathy as the action of understanding and being sensitive to the feelings and experiences of another person.

In other words, empathy is the action of sharing the feelings and experiences of another person even though you haven't been in the situation yourself. As previously mentioned, according to Psychology Today, there are two components of empathy: 

Emotional component of empathy 

The emotional component of empathy or "emotional empathy" is the ability to share an emotion with someone else. If you’re talking to someone who begins to cry and you begin to cry as a result of their tears and sadness, that is emotional empathy. It’s the ability to share another person’s emotions. 

Emotional empathy example: Have you ever been excited because your friend was excited about their good news? Or, have you ever been sad because a friend or family member was sad about some not-so-good news? These are examples of emotional empathy. Emotional empathy is experienced when someone else’s emotions impact your own emotional state. 

Cognitive component of empathy 

The cognitive part of empathy is all about understanding someone else’s experiences.  A popular quote states, "Before you judge a man, take a walk in his shoes." This quote describes cognitive empathy. It's the ability to put yourself in someone else's shoes and understand what they're experiencing or see life from their point of view. 

Cognitive empathy example: Have you ever had a friend tell you about something bothering them? But, initially, it didn't seem like a "big deal" to you?" However, as you take the time to listen to the details about why your friend was so bothered, you can come to their side and understand why it was such a big deal to them. Although you didn't experience what they experienced, you can see the situation from their perspective and why it was such a "big deal" to them. That is cognitive empathy. 

Cognitive empathy begins to develop in children as they get older and can be modeled to them through everyday experiences. 

Why is empathy important? 

There are many reasons why empathy is important. But, the main reason is that empathy helps foster positive and healthy relationships. Think about the positive relationships in your life. When someone can see life from your perspective and offer help or share emotion with you and offer comfort, not only does it help build solid relational bonds, but it also helps build trust. Here a just a few benefits of teaching empathy to children: 

  • Empathy can lead to kindness and friendships. 
  • Empathy helps children become more aware of their feelings and the feelings of others. 
  • Empathy can help children use critical thinking and problem-solving skills to figure out ways to help another person or make them feel better. 

How can you teach empathy to children?

To help children understand empathy, use everyday experiences at your school to teach and help them practice. Here are some activities and ways to teach children empathy. 

Teaching empathy to infants 

 

Infant teacher holding crying infant

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Infants can learn about empathy within their first year of life, beginning with their interactions with parents and caregivers. When parents and caregivers show love towards infants, the baby will learn what love is and how to respond to love. Loving relationships also help children develop trust, empathy, compassion, and self-confidence. 

You can start by speaking in a soft and comforting voice with the babies in your care. These are the beginning stages of helping babies learn and experience empathy. But it doesn’t stop there. You can also provide infants with responsive care.

Responsive care matches your caregiving to what the infant in your care needs. In other words, it’s observing a child’s temperament and emotional cues to figure out what they need and then nurturing them in response to those needs. For example, imagine holding a snack in your hand and feeding it to the infant or toddler one by one by placing the snack directly in their mouth. You notice them getting fussy and reaching for the snack because they want to hold the snack and feed it to themselves, so you respond by placing the snack on a tray or in a cup to fulfill their needs and desire for independence. This is what responsive care looks like. 

It can also look like narrating to the child while performing daily caregiving activities such as changing their diapers to support the child’s active participation in their care routines while building trust and respect. To be effective at responsive caregiving: 

Take the time to get to know the infants in your care - What foods do they like/dislike? What toys do they like or dislike? What seems to interest them? What is their daily schedule? 

Communicate with parents - Take the time to build a strong relationship with the infant’s parents. This will also help you glean the information you need to be a responsive caregiver. Talk to the baby’s parents about their personality, emotional cues, daily schedule, likes, and dislikes. 

Teaching empathy to toddlers and preschoolers 

 

Emotions Cards 

For toddlers and preschoolers, you can create emotion cards or boards that display the various emotions humans feel daily. Use the emotion cards to ask and discuss how everyone (adults included) is feeling today.

If a child or adult mentions that they're sad, you can say, "What can we do to help our friend feel better?” This will help the child develop critical thinking skills and put themselves in someone else's shoes.

Invite children to talk about their emotions with you one on one 

 

Teaching talking to young child

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Open the lines of communication with the children in your care to discuss their emotions. For example, if a child is sad, take the time to understand why they’re upset. You can say something like, "You look a bit sad; are you upset?" You can then offer words of comfort when needed. “I know it was hard to say goodbye to mommy this morning. She’s coming back after a nap. I can support you and read your favorite book.” 

When conflict arises in the classroom, you can use it as an opportunity to help them practice problem-solving with empathy. To lead with empathy it’s important to validate the children's feelings on both sides of the conflict. Here are a few steps a teacher can take to resolve a conflict: 

    1. 1. Share what you observed and/or get more information on the conflict. Share the facts of what you observed without judgment or blame and use neutral language such as “what’s happening here?”
    2. 2. Validate the children's feelings. Get on the child’s eye level and practice reflective listening (listen and restate what you heard).
    3. 3. Support the children to share their feelings and perspective. How is each child feeling in the conflict? What’s their perspective on the conflict? What are they each trying to accomplish? Do they understand what the other person is trying to accomplish? Understanding the other child’s perspective builds empathy and helps with the next phase of finding possible solutions that support each child’s goals before the conflict. 
    4. 4. Discuss possible solutions. Ask the children to share their thoughts on possible solutions. You can also share some suggestions for solutions. 
    5. 5. Come to an agreement on the solution. Support the children in choosing the best solution to meet their needs. This may take some time and negotiation. The solution may not be “fair” in the eyes of the adult, but if the children are content and ready to move on, consider the conflict resolved. The last step is to restate the agreement and ensure both children are comfortable with their plan to move forward.  
    6.  

Read stories about emotions 

 

Teacher reading to young children

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During circle time, include stories about characters that have experiences with emotions. As you read, pause to take a minute to discuss the characters' emotions and ask the children questions about those emotions. Pause to explore the character's feelings throughout the story. You can ask questions like, "How do you think the character feels? "Why do you think they feel that way?" How can other characters in the story help him? Some children’s books that explore emotions include: 

Make cards when someone is out sick 

 

Child making a card

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When a classmate or a teacher is out sick, you can encourage your class to make "Get Well" cards. Allow the children to be creative and add their spin to the cards. Encouraging the children to make a card when someone isn’t feeling well is a great way to teach them how to be empathetic and help others. 

Encourage helping others 

 

Young child sweeping

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There are many daily opportunities to help others. You can help the children in your care learn empathy by pointing out those opportunities. For example, if one child is having trouble cleaning up or picking up a toy, you can ask other children to help. 

Celebrate positive behavior 

 

A child comforting another child

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One way to help children under five learn empathy and catch on is to celebrate their positive wins and behaviors. Pointing out the positive behavior will help the child recognize what empathy looks like. For example, if a child sees another child in distress and brings them a toy for comfort or offers a pat on the back to make them feel better. You can say, "That was so thoughtful of you to bring your friend a toy to help them feel better." 

For more ideas on how to encourage social-emotional development in infants, toddlers, and preschoolers, download our free activities across developmental domains for inspiration. 

Activities Across Developmental Domains - brightwheelDownload our free list of activities across developmental domains!

Lead by example 

 

Adult leading a young child up a log ramp

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The best way to teach empathy to children is to lead by example. You can model active listening and respond to the children with empathy through your actions and words. You can model expressing your feelings and problem-solving while introducing new emotional vocabulary words.

Get parents involved 

 

Parents comforting a young child

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You'll want to get parents on board. Talk about how you're learning about empathy in class, and share some of the activities and ways you teach empathy to their children in the classroom. This way, they can also implement some of the strategies and activities at home for reinforcement. 

Learning empathy is a life-long journey

As we strive to be a more compassionate and inclusive society, teaching children empathy is a great place to start. It serves us well to remember that children learn best through real, relevant, and authentic experiences. They lean on the adults around them to model the very skills we want to cultivate in them. 

Our biggest job and challenge in teaching empathy to young children is to show empathy to the children and those around us, to be authentic with our feelings, and to embrace the learning opportunities that arise from real-life challenges in our relationships with one another.

 


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