The importance of promoting empathy in Children
Do you remember the last time you taught a child how to make friends, or talked to them about other people’s feelings? I don’t think there is an easy answer to this question because humans are social creatures anyway! We naturally love to socialize and be part of a group. Therefore, the need to teach a child how to be social tends to lose intensity and be disregarded as we are all already born with an innate sense of belonging (to each other)! However, there are social aspects that need to be reinforced like teaching a child how to share or how to allow others to have a turn first. Such, and many other social skills, come through nurture. With that being said, we will mainly focus on exploring the concept of promoting empathy and why it is important.
Empathy is the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and understand their emotions or experience (Goodstart, 2018). In the early years of life, young children are naturally ego-centric and are very much inclined to think mostly about themselves and their immediate needs; the word ‘Mine’ seems to be a mantra for them. They are not yet ready to consider the needs and feelings of others. But acquiring a sense of empathy is an important developmental process for young children and one that can benefit them not only in childhood but well into adult life. Studies show that around 2 years of age, children start to show genuine empathy; understanding how other people feel even when they don’t feel the same way themselves (Abedon, 2005). Not only do they feel another person’s pain, but they actually try to soothe it. Acquiring this sophisticated social skill is challenging and will definitely not happen overnight but exposing them to ways in which they can practice empathy is crucial.
Empathy is not an inborn trait, rather it is a learned behavior that develops into cognitive empathy. Developing empathy is important in a child’s ability to regulate their behavior, and it is beneficial for the child to be able to adapt and succeed in an ever-changing world. Parents and educators play an important role in assisting children to develop empathy. Going to school is not all about reading books, writing sentences or even doing math equations. A lot more lies in a child than just their knowledge of books.
Here at Little Scholars, we offer a holistic approach in the educational system that fosters understanding of the individual child, their personality and the environment around them.
Teaching social-emotional skills are more vital in comparison to the bigger academic skills that are much more easily taught and assessed. Teaching the children to understand and share emotions of others is key to their development (Zelas, 2019). Research studies demonstrate that empathy does have an impact in a classroom setting. When teachers model empathy, the students act in the same manner. This is shown to improve both motivation and academic achievements (Wilson, 2016). Additionally, empathy can be used to help reduce aggressive behavior by encouraging children to be aware of other people’s emotions. Empathetic children often grow up to be compassionate adults; the caretakers of a hurt world. Here are some of the ways in which the Little scholars team encourage empathy:
- Encourage communication and emotional validity
A toddler’s vocabulary and ability to comprehend a wide range of feelings are limited, so you need to verbalize emotions for them. For example, if the child was not able to get to play with their favorite toy, you can say to them; “I can tell you’re disappointed, it is alright. I also feel that way when I don’t get what I really want.” You can also point out feelings in others. Being empathetic requires children to not only understand what another person is feeling but also to determine how they would feel in the same situation (Kuther, 2017) which then infers the importance of a child understanding their own feelings first too. Our first step for our little toddlers would be helping them understand what they feel, affirming
- Reading books together
As children learn to associate feelings and actions with their favorite characters and stories, they connect with the characters and live out the characters in their own minds. The ability to take on the feelings and life of another (fictional) individual is a great step towards developing empathy! Books that have moral insights are best as they promote grace and courtesies that children learn to mimic.
- Pretend play
For much of the same reasons above, pretend play enables a child to take on different roles and act out scenarios from different emotional, social and authoritative angles. A child learns to engage with his/her peers while walking in shoes other than his own. Pretend play is actually one of the most effective ways of fostering empathy!
- Watching videos that demonstrate empathy
Children learn in different ways. You may find that a more kinesthetic learner will develop empathy faster through pretend play whilst a visual learner may understand the concept better by watching videos. Therefore, it is also important for children to watch videos on how to make friends, how to share, how to take care of the planet etc. You can then create room for discussion and assess whether the children have understood or not. Discussion allows them to understand how others are feeling through their own emotions.
- Real-life situation discussions
A hypothetical situation can be discussed. An adult can open up the beginning scenario, but then he/she needs to allow the children the validity of their own feelings, teaching them the right vocabulary and expressions to use to answer questions and follow through the discussion by themselves. For instance, the starting line of a discussion could be “Jack went up the hill and left Jill behind because she didn’t want to join him. When Jack got up, he accidentally tumbled down and bruised his knee.” The adult then asks open-ended questions to prompt and allow the children to explore how to respond to other people’s feelings/the situation. A question example would be “How did Jill feel when Jack left her behind? What should Jill do to Jake now that he is hurt?”
While playing out in the playground, real life scenarios actually happen. An adult should use every opportunity to promote critical and empathetical thinking, allowing the children to help themselves solve their own problems while fostering care and selflessness at the same time.
Teaching empathy allows children to respond authentically. If children are told to simply apologize without being empathetic towards the other person, they won’t be aware that the feelings of others actually matter. Empathy helps children to have authentic rather than empty apologies and responses to others.
It is noteworthy to mention that empathy does not just stop at humans. It is not a human to human act only. Empathy for the animals, the plants and the entire planet is equally as important. At little scholars, the love of animals, plants and all living things is fostered and cultivated within the children through various activities. You can read our Earth day blog to find out more about this!
To conclude, empathy is such an important skill that we must cultivate in our children. Not only does it help build secure relationships, nurturing environments and good mental/emotional wellness, it is a skill we must enhance while building a better future for our little ones! Remember, in order to promote empathy in children, it is vital to practice it yourself first. Be a kind adult, a genuine and sincere person.
Be a leader, a role model, a caretaker and well-wisher. Children are natural observers! You can preach, but they will only follow what you practice 🙂