My son recently saw a group of boys a little older than him building a large structure with foam blocks. He went over and bravely asked if he could help them build. He helped add some pieces to the big structure. He continued to help and then took a step back, looked up and all of a sudden pushed the entire structure over and it broke into pieces. As soon as his hands pushed the structure down, the other children froze and made a collective, “oh man” grunt. He immediately started crying and recognized that the children were upset that he knocked down their structure that they had been working on before he joined them. With his face buried in my chest, I explained to him that I understood that it’s fun and exciting to push and knock down structures. If you build it, you can break it. Part of building is that if it breaks you can build it again. At first the other children were a little upset. Then one of the boys came over to us and said, “Its ok, we can build it again and make something different. Do you want to help us?” The boy’s reaction and response to my son’s sadness was not only empathetic to another child’s feelings but he was trying to help him understand perspective taking as a part of being empathic. Empathy — the ability to identify with and understand another person’s feelings, situation, or motives — is an important component of social and emotional development.
Teaching empathy doesn’t just make kids more emotionally and socially competent; it can also help them be more successful and functioning citizens in the future. Empathic children and adolescents are more likely to engage in positive social behaviors, like sharing or helping others. Various studies show that the more empathy a child displays, the less likely they are to engage in bullying as tweens and teens. Social psychologists believe that although children are born with a capacity for empathy, they can also learn to become empathic. However, empathy has to be natural, spontaneous, and sincere.
Developing empathy is a gradual process. Toddlers may just sense something is wrong while older preschoolers can check on friends and help take care of the world around them. Empathy is a learning process where parents, teachers and caregivers become emotional coaches. We teach empathy to provide children with the support they need to learn social norms and when and how to show empathic concern. They also learn about their own emotional responses. In this we are acknowledging our children’s negative feelings, and engaging them in conversation about the causes and effects of emotions. It also means helping kids find constructive ways to handle their moods.
As I think about my son’s adjustment to new teachers, classroom and children, I wonder what the coming year has in store. This summer he went from our small toddler community to a preschool classroom with double the space and children. Will he be able to negotiate with other children? Will he be able to advocate for himself if he feels that he isn’t being treated fairly? Will he continue to move from parallel play to cooperative play with combining his ideas and imagination with others? As we begin this new school year, I am looking forward to seeing him grow and develop new friendships.
In this beginning of school transition, the teachers and I want to continue to create opportunities for children to become empathetic towards others. Some ways we can assist young children in showing empathy is to label how we think they might be feeling. We can also show children photographs of people modeling different emotions (happiness, sadness, anger, or fear) will help children recognize facial expressions which will improve their face reading skills. We can also play a guessing game with a photograph and guessing what emotion the photo is representing. Finally, story-telling is a great way for children to take another perspective of how a child feels by looking at pictures and hearing a story where they can relate too. Remember, developing empathy takes time. Empathy is a complex skill and will continue to develop across your child’s life.