Helping Children Practice Empathy

By Molly Breen

Helping Children Practice EmpathyEvery day we engage in activities that require an assumed social contract or boundary: we stop (mostly) at stop signs, we wait in line at the supermarket, we allow people to walk out of the door before we walk in. You get the idea. These boundaries keep things safe, keep us feeling good, and ultimately help us regulate our expectations and behavior.

Now what about those times when someone doesn’t stop at the stop sign or slips in front of you in line as you are clearly making your way to the checkout? What about that person who barged through the door as you were going out with a hot coffee?

These aren’t simply infractions of rules; they are examples of folks losing track of their boundaries—our shared social expectations. Like most things developmental, social boundaries and their underlying regulating emotions are best served up in early life so they can develop over time, with practice and through direct experience.

In preschool, children have ample opportunities to learn about their boundaries and those of others, all as an outgrowth of the same emotional seed: empathy.

Without empathy, the whole concept of boundaries is underpinned by rules alone, and as the saying goes, rules are made to be broken. By developing children’s empathic understanding in preschool, we can create an emotional literacy that helps them transcend simple rule-following.

We know from scientific research that empathy is a capacity that can be built through teaching and modeling. In preschool, there are hundreds of opportunities each day for children to build empathy, especially when it comes to consent and rough-and-tumble play.

At around three years old, most children are capable of relating to a range of emotions and having an empathic response. This capacity can be built through experiences with other children, by observing adult behavior, and by reading social stories or books that have emotional content. Here are some things you can do to help this process.

5 Ways to Help Children Practice Empathy

1. Narrate emotional responses.

For example: “I see that you are feeling sad that we have to leave the library right now. I can tell because of your tears and your sad voice. Should we make a plan to come back again another day?”

2. Practice facial recognition and perspective-taking.

For example: “Look at [name’s] face. How do you think [name] is feeling?” Help children develop an emotional vocabulary that extends beyond the big three (happy, sad, mad). Here is a great resource for developing emotional vocabulary from Vanderbilt University that incorporates games and songs that are preschool-perfect!

3. Read for empathy.

In any picture book or chapter book you read aloud with children, pause and occasionally ask: “How do you think the characters are feeling right now? How do you know that? Have you ever felt that way?”

4. Use reflection in action.

When opportunities arise within the school day or during play, instead of using corrective language like, “She doesn’t like that, please stop,” guide children’s behavior through reflection. For example: “Can you see how [name’s] body is turning away from you? What do you think that means?” Likewise, build self-advocacy for the child who may need encouragement to express personal boundaries: “What do you want [name] to know when you turn your body away?”

5. Use reflection on action.

Sometimes coaching empathy in a heightened moment can be difficult, but we can always build in time for reflection in a calm later moment. For example: “Remember when you were feeling sad before? How are you feeling now? Do you notice how those feelings come and go?” Closing the emotional feedback loop is important most times, and building empathy is no exception.

Ask questions like, “How do you think [name] felt?” or “How did you feel?” or “Did you ever feel that way before?” Couple those questions with an open-ended question like, “What should we do next time?” to build empathic capacity. And don’t underestimate the power of an affirming phrase: “I believe in you!” “I knew you could do it!” “We will try again, and next time will be different!”

The Power of Shared Expectations

Building empathy takes a lot of practice and time. So in the immediate space of shared experience in the classroom or school, we rely upon shared expectations that come both from above (school rules) and from below (group developed).

In our setting, we have our “Big 3.” These are overarching, broad-concept agreements:

  1. Listen to teachers. We take time to develop why this is important and why we agree upon it.
  2. Take care of ourselves, our classmates, and our school. This is more general than a rule like “No touching other kids” or “Hands on your own body” and allows for application in many scenarios.
  3. You know best about you. By far and away my favorite of the Big 3! This agreement encourages self-reflection and self-reliance and empowers children to see themselves as capable of making good choices.

Once agreements are in place, revisited, and visually represented in your shared spaces, you can refer to the expectations so redirection doesn’t feel arbitrary but instead is always connected to the framework of shared boundaries.

With your student group, you can also develop a subset of group expectations that are 100 percent child-initiated. These can get very extensive and specific (“No putting garbage on someone’s head!”), but it’s the process of creating the shared expectations that is most important.

Rough-and-Tumble Play

What about those nuanced moments that will undoubtedly develop in the course of the preschool day that the Big 3 have not accounted for? Certainly we know that preschool children are the most creative people in the world and will absolutely find ways to stump us!

When play gets rough in my preschool, we first ask, “Are you having fun?” of everyone involved. If the answer is yes, we work together to make sure there is 1) supervision for the rough play and 2) shared expectations and safe words to stop the play or express a boundary.

Why do we let kids go the rough-and-tumble route? In our experience and according to research, this is a great pathway for some children toward increased self-regulation and the ability to self-advocate and express boundaries.

Figuring out as an institution what your policy is on rough-and-tumble play and creating some internal guidelines, along with transparency for parents, will help you keep expectations consistent for kids, families, and teachers.

We all have internal risk boundaries—our thresholds for risk vary based upon our life experiences and our natural dispositions. This is true for everyone, including children! Teachers have the important job of guiding children to recognize their own boundaries and those of their friends and playmates.

This also requires evaluating our own implicit biases and investigating whether these are influencing our ideas about or boundaries for rough play—especially if rough play is exactly what a child needs for healthy development. As with so many experiences in the dynamic exchange of teaching and learning, deliberate reflection can help us evolve in our understanding of empathy and boundaries. The good news is that our capacity for empathy doesn’t have an expiration date, so adults and children can learn and grow in this way together.

The next time you bear witness to someone eschewing the social boundaries that most of us adhere to, you can practice your own empathetic response and think, “Maybe they didn’t have enough time to practice developing boundaries in preschool.”

Molly BreenMolly Breen, M.A., ECE, has worked with kids and families for nearly two decades as an educator. A believer in lifelong learning, her heart is in early childhood, where the seeds of curiosity, character, and community are planted. Through her work with children as a practitioner in the classroom, Molly has developed broad expertise in curriculum development and instruction, behavior guidance, and social and emotional learning. In her role as a program director, she has created innovative approaches to professional and program development, family engagement, and community outreach. She lives in St. Paul, Minnesota, with her husband and three kids.

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