Can We Teach Children Empathy?

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       A simple definition of empathy is the ability to share another person's feelings and emotions as if they were your own.  So, how can we teach children empathy, if they don't have the cognitive skills to truly understand the concept.  In order to teach this concept, we need to begin by praising kind behavior and encouraging children to talk about their feelings.

      Therefore, young children need to recognize their feelings and it is essential for adults to connect feelings to behaviors.  For example, "It was very nice how you helped the new boy at school, he may have been feeling nervous."  It is important for adults to recognize a child’s behavior, as they will know you value your efforts. 

      Allow children to talk about their feelings.  It is important for children to know that you care about how they feel.  Listen attentively when they tell you about an incident that took place at school or at home.  Also, allow children to express their opinion related to an incident.  For example, if a child says “Billy was teasing Sally today on the playground. I thought that was mean and it made me angry.” Respond by saying, “So you were not happy with the way Billy acted?”  Responding will encourage the child to elaborate.

      Also, it is important to express your feelings to children. They will learn that adults have feelings and emotions too.   Feelings and emotions are a normal part of life, and learning to cope with them is an important part of growing up.

      Empathy needs to be nurtured throughout a child’s life. Learning empathy requires practice and guidance. Regularly considering other people’s viewpoints and situations helps make empathy a natural impulse and helps children get better at understanding the feelings and perspectives of others.

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      In the Carrie Flower Curriculum, we developed an activity that allows children to identify and express feelings.  The activity uses emotion cards that portray a specific emotion on each card. Small groups of students introduce their emotion card to the class. Each group is responsible for figuring out how to be responsive to their card's feelings. For example, if one card has a sad face, what can they do to help? If another card shows a happy face, how can they use that positive feeling to benefit others?     

Discussions included with this activity include:

a. How can we identify our own feelings?

b. Provide mirrors for children to look at their own faces. Have them act out various emotions and describe what happens to their faces when they feel certain emotions.

c. How can we express our feelings in positive, healthy ways?

d. How can we help those around us with their feelings?

Write each idea on the chart paper.  The charts can be displayed in the hallway or classroom after the lesson. It will serve as a reminder to students to identify and express feelings in a helpful manner.  In fact, you can encourage students to add other ideas as they think of them.

I hope you find these discussions and activities helpful in your classrooms or at home with your own children.  I would love to hear your opinions or any ideas you may wish to share when teaching children social and emotional skills.

Please feel free to comment below.  Thank you. 

Until next time, Dr. G.