Modeling Compassion in Early Childhood Education

By Molly Breen

Modeling Compassion in Early Childhood EducationWhen we teachers first decided to work in early care and education, our prevailing thought was likely, “I love being with children,” and perhaps, “I’m good with kids.” Once we began our early years of teaching, we started to learn about children’s layered developmental needs and build our skills—including classroom management, professionalism, anti-bias practices, and licensing compliance, to name a few. Amid all this, and a few years down the road, we might find that we lose sight of the presence we bring to our role as teachers and the ways in which we model how to be in the world. Sometimes, we may even lose sight of our original prevailing thought: that we love working with children. But we must challenge ourselves to remember that teaching and learning go far beyond what we do with children; I would argue that more important is how we are with them.

We are more effective as teachers when we model the behaviors we want children to embody or learn. Modeling is authentic and relational, and it allows children to come to their own understanding of how to be—for better or worse. For example, we may unintentionally model agitated behaviors during transitions if we get flustered, frustrated, and anxious. Our tone of voice may change, and our movements may become quick or abrupt. While we don’t mean to, when we behave in these ways during transitions, we signal to children that this is how they should be in a transition time. Alternatively, if we take care to model working through the frustration of switching tasks, cleaning up, or getting dressed to go outside, we can help children learn to do the same. We can stop to name the emotions we observe or feel, take a deep breath, sing a song about the transition, or use visual reminders to help us stay on track. And we can praise the process as we go, always aware that skills are built over time, through direct experiences, and in the context of relationships.

More complex emotional skills, like having compassion, are inherent traits that require developmental experiences to be expressed. Compassion is our ability to respond to the needs of others to try to alleviate their suffering. The ways in which we express it may be varied: perhaps it’s a kind word or gesture to include someone, words of encouragement to help someone along, a hug, or a more targeted effort, like a fundraiser or awareness-raising event. However we express compassion, the intention is to help others without an expectation of reward.

Our own self-awareness and ability to attune to and regulate our emotions is the starting line for any effective and authentic modeling. Authenticity cannot be manufactured or preached! Practicing compassion in our own lives is a good place to start when we want to authentically model it for children. Next, provide children opportunities to learn about efforts and organizations that help others. This is often best done through service-learning opportunities, like volunteering and community-based projects. You might be thinking that service learning is only for older kids, but I assure you that it has a place in preschool too!

Here are a few examples of compassionate service-learning projects that preschoolers can participate in:

  • Develop a Little Free Pantry or Little Free Library at your school site that the preschoolers and their families are responsible for. Discuss why it’s important to share what we have with others!
  • Partner with your local library or community center to do a group gardening day with the children and their families. Discuss how communities come together to take care of the spaces we all share.
  • Make pretty cards or paint pictures to mail to residents of a local assisted living community. Talk with the children about caring for those who are lonely.
  • Organize a personal care items and nonperishable food drive to benefit your local food pantry. Encourage your school community to choose from unopened items in their own pantries or to shop from the list of high demand items recommended by the organization you are donating to. If your own school community could benefit from a school food pantry, begin one of your own that accepts donations from the community and enrolled families.
  • Join the Compassion Project for a schoolwide effort to educate kids and families on the importance of compassion.

There are endless opportunities to model compassion for preschool children, both in direct, planned ways and in less formal, daily interactions. The key to children “learning” compassion is the direct experience, satisfaction, and fulfillment they get by helping others. A bonus is that they get to see you, their teacher, along with the other adults in their lives, do the same.

As we model these qualities and provide opportunities to experience and express them with our students, we grow down to the roots of our being—a tremendous perk for our own human development! We also help make the world a better place in the process. What could be more important than that?

Molly BreenMolly Breen, M.A., E.C.E., 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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