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How to Teach Empathy to Young Children

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When parents think about learning for young children, they often assume we’re talking about developmental or academic skills. But empathy is also an incredibly important skill for young children to develop, and it’s something that can be taught, both in the classroom and at home. 

Empathy is the capacity to look at something from a different perspective, and to understand how someone else may be feeling in any given moment. Children who develop empathy at a young age are more inclined to act ethically as they grow older, create strong, loving relationships, and value diversity and perspectives that may not be their own. 

Empathy is an important part of the Vivvi curriculum, says Rachel Duda, Vivvi’s VP of Learning. “If we want to grow our children into kind, compassionate adults, we need to teach and model empathy from the youngest of ages. But like all other skills, empathy takes practice, and the more practice your child has, the more empathetic they will become.”

Here are a few strategies to teach empathy to young children:

  • Model empathetic behavior. Kindness matters, from how you treat a restaurant server to how you talk to your partner or other adults in your home. Ask questions to those you meet during the day, and show your child that you are genuinely interested in their answers. Do the same for your child: ask them about their day or how they’re feeling. 
  • Encourage awareness. When you watch a movie or read a book, or see a situation play out at the park, ask your child “How do you think they feel?” While reading books ask,” What do the characters think, believe, want, or feel? And how do we know it?”
  • Look for clues. Tell your child to look at the other person’s face or their actions to give them clues about how the other person feels.
  • Describe and label. Help your child recognize their body and emotions. “Your hands are in fists. You stomped your feet. Your voice is loud. You seem angry.”  Engage children in conversations about the cause and effect of emotions. 
  • Help children discover what they have in common with others. Humans are more empathetic to people when they perceive the person to be similar or familiar. Help children to see how they connect to others. 
  • Act out emotions. Have children imitate different facial expressions to experience the associated emotion. Show them what a sad face looks like and have them try it out. Take a picture of them making the face and print them out to create a feelings book or build an emotions chart
  • Use pretend play. Talk about feelings and empathy while you play. Use puppets to play out different scenarios, or try dress-up play to allow your child to try on a different character. When children have the opportunity to “try something out,” they internalize the associated emotion. 
  • Rethink “Say you’re sorry.We often insist that our children say “I’m sorry” as a way for them to take responsibility for their actions. But many young children don’t fully understand what these words mean. While it may feel “right” for them to say “I’m sorry,” it doesn’t necessarily help young children learn empathy. A more meaningful approach can be to help children focus on the other person’s feelings: “Mack, look at Dash he’s very sad. He’s crying. He’s holding his arm where you pushed him. That hurt, let’s see if he is okay. What can we do to make Dash feel better?” This helps children make the connection between the action and the reaction.
  • Read a book. Some of our favorite books that teach about empathy include The Big Umbrella; Peace is an offering; Feelings by Aliki; The Feelings Book by Todd Parr and Baby Faces Board Book.

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