How to Build Empathy and Trust During Circle Time

By Lydia Bowers, author of We Listen to Our Bodies

How to Build Empathy and Trust During Circle TimeAs educators, we tend to use circle time to recite the days of the week (clap, clap), sing a few songs, and introduce lessons. Instead, circle time can provide a much-needed moment of group connection. It can offer a space to set intention and peace.

The world is sometimes a scary place, and it’s even more so within the context of a global pandemic. During a pandemic, the world is chaotic and unpredictable. To keep children safe, many schools must implement rigid, often harsh guidelines. Kirke Olson, school psychologist, describes the classroom environment as a river flowing between two banks. One bank is chaos—scary and unpredictable. The other bank is rigidity—harsh rule enforcement. Between these two banks, educators can create a cultural island in their classrooms by emphasizing connection, safety, and positivity.

But how does connection help? Within the occipital lobe of our brains is an area called the fusiform face area (FFA), which helps us recognize faces. The FFA combines information from emotional areas of the brain. These connections with the emotional areas of the brain allow empathy and emotional resonance with others. Emotional resonance means that things like worry and anxiety are contagious. But so are calm, peace, and feelings of safety. In circle time, a teacher can set the tone for the day. When the teacher intentionally projects a calm, cheerful voice and facial cues, the children notice these, and they resonate.

Here is how you can create a circle time that’s intentional and meaningful:

Check In

Provide time to check in about emotions. Ask children how they are feeling. What worries do they have? Make sure to validate children’s emotions and any sense of loss they are feeling. In the face of fears, we do not have to have solutions and answers for everything. We cannot necessarily answer when this will be over, or why some people get sick and others don’t. And those answers aren’t helpful anyway. In a YouTube video on empathy, Brené Brown explains how trying to fix others’ pain misses the mark because “the truth is, rarely can a response make something better. What makes something better is connection.”

Care for Each Other

Have children brainstorm ways to show care for each other, in and out of the classroom. Why do we wear masks? How can we comfort friends at a distance? Gahmya Drummond-Bey has taught through multiple pandemics and offers insight and tips from her experience. Check them out at her Facebook here.

Look for Joy

Look for moments of joy and pleasure. Have children find a classroom object that they enjoy the texture of. Ask them to share a story of a classmate who helped them in some way. Children can learn to recognize not only the physical sensations of being sad or angry, but also of calm and peace and joy. When we identify those sensations in advance, they become a tool we can use when we need help facing fear and anxiety.

Set Intentions

What do we want to do today to take care of ourselves and each other? Can we each try to do at least one kind thing for someone else? Remember that children mirror our forward-facing emotions without realizing it. So set your intentions as well: how will you approach the children today?

Circle time may not always go smoothly. Sometimes tumultuous feelings will bubble up, especially in a chaotic world. Those feelings may be from the children or from ourselves. Allowing space to confront those feelings and respond to each other can shift the entire day. Right now, how you choose to connect during your circle time is more important than ever.


Olson, Kirke. 2014. The Invisible Classroom: Relationships, Neuroscience, and Mindfulness in School. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.

Lydia BowersLydia Bowers is a speaker, consultant, and trainer who happily exists in the Venn diagram overlap between early childhood and sex education. After spending almost two decades working directly with children as a classroom teacher and a parent, she is passionate about reframing sexuality conversations. Lydia now teaches families and educators how to talk to children about subjects like gender, reproduction, and abuse. When she’s not traveling around the country for conferences and speaking engagements, she lives in Cincinnati with her husband and two children and adds to her growing collection of children’s book character tattoos as often as she can. Follow her on TikTok @lydiatalksconsent and Instagram @lydiambowers.

We Listen to Our Bodies book coverLydia is the author of We Listen to Our Bodies.

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