Ages & Stages: Empathy

How to nurture this important gateway to a social and emotional growth

  • Grades: Early Childhood, PreK–K

Stage by Stage

0 - 2 

By soothing an infant, you'll help him learn to comfort himself and, eventually, to comfort others.

Toddlers are sensitive to the feelings of their friends and will often mimic their emotions-a necessary precursor to empathy.

Empathy needs to be repeatedly modeled and encouraged in toddlers before it becomes a part of their behavior.

3 - 4

Threes can make the connection between emotions and desires, and they can respond to a friend's distress with simple soothing gestures.

Sometimes preschoolers can only relate to the feelings of others if they share the same feelings and perspective on a situation. 

Fours are capable of seeing a situation from another person's perspective. Yet they need to know that not all! reactions to feelings are OK. 

5 - 6

With their ever-increasing vocabulary, lives love to share their feelings, and discussions about emotions will help them develop a better understanding of the feelings of others.

Fives and sixes are learning how to read others' feelings through their actions, gestures, and facial expressions--an essential empathy and social skill.

By modeling and encouraging empathy, kindergartners will learn how to become compassionate members of a caring community.

0 to 2 Building a Foundation  by Carla Poole

Two-month-old Seth begins to fuss when his teaches Tanya, gently puts him in his infant seat. Tanya talks to him, hoping that her voice will soothe him. When his fussing becomes more determined, Tanya rubs his tummy and croons his name, but Seth keeps crying. Finally, she picks him up and slowly rocks him until he begins to calm down. Although Tanya responds quickly to Seth's discomfort, her approach is gradual, starting with her voice. By moving in slowly she is letting him assist in his own comforting. The newborn's job is to learn, with loving help, how to soothe himself. Just as talking to an infant helps him learn language, soothing him helps him learn to comfort himself and, eventually, to comfort others.

During these nurturing interactions, infants fall deeply in love with the people who care for them. These strongly felt connections give them the emotional capacity for later feelings of empathy. Empathy, an important component of social and emotional development, emerges within consistent and caring relationships over several years. Much of the groundwork is laid during early attachments formed in infancy:

Mimicking Emotions

Nine-month-old Jamal loves to put the blanket on his head, pull it off, and look for cheers of approval. He is learning to read facial and gestural cues, repeating activities that make people laugh. He is becoming more aware of other people and how they are feeling--an essential precursor to empathy.

While many junior toddlers are sensitive to the feelings of others, they don't yet feel empathy Ben, for example, begins to cry when his mother is temporarily out of sight. Emily, another one-year-old playing next to him, suddenly turns somber. Ben's anxiety has triggered a similar feeling in Emily. Although she has been affected by Ben's tears, she is not yet aware of why her playmate is crying and has no need to comfort him.

Toddlers observe and imitate the adults who care for them. When 18-month-old Anna falls and scrapes her knee, a group of children gather around her and watch as her teacher comforts hey In time, they will use the teacher's behavior as their template for comforting others. Empathic behavior needs to be repeatedly modeled by adults and encouraged in children before it becomes part of their behavior

Early Signs of Empathy

Developing empathy is a gradual process. At first a toddler may only have a vague impression that something is wrong. Twenty-month-old Jenny, for example, is busy helping to find baby Sally's favorite blanket. Jenny's teacher explicitly encourages her: "Thank you for helping to make Sally feel better!" As the two-year-olds expanding thinking skills combine with positive emotional experiences, brief moments of early empathy begin to take place.

Two-year-old Jeremy pats his friend's back when he starts to cry after dropping his ice cream cone. Jeremy has internalized all the comforting pats that he has received whenever he was upset. His empathy is limited, however; to familiar situations that he has experienced himself, like losing a favorite toy or having to say good-bye to Mommy in the morning.

It's hard work for a two-year-old to understand the perspective of others. Try telling a toddler that you're too tired to play when she's eager to go outside for a game of Chase Me! Her strong need to run will easily outweigh any empathic feelings she might have for her tired teacher. Yet when Emily's noodles keep slipping off her spoon, a fellow two-year-old gets up and begins to feed her with his spoon! Toddlers can care for one another-specially when helping each other is talked about and modeled by the adults who care for them.

What You Can Do

  • Describe how others are feeling: "Angelo is sad because he lost his ball." This helps children become more aware of their feelings and the feelings of others.
  • Gently guide the children's play to encourage empathy: "David is hungry too! He needs some pretend snack on his plate!" or "Is the dolly sleepy? You are taking very good care of that dolly!"

3 to 4 An Awareness of Feelings  by Susan A. Miller, Ed.D.

Brittany smiles as she strokes the fur of a special fluffy classroom visitor Three-year-old Valerie says to her teacher: "Look at Brittany. She's happy petting the kitty." When the kitty suddenly runs away and hides, Brittany frowns and cries, "Come back!" To comfort hey Valerie pats Brittany's arm and says, "Don't be sad," while four-year-old Marc appears on all fours in front of Brittany and purrs, "It's OK. Pet me. I'll be your kitty now."

Valerie and Marc are exhibiting various emotional and cognitive aspects of the important pro-social behavior empathy. Valerie's comments show that a three-year-old can comprehend a connection between emotions and desires. When Brittany has something she wants, such as the kitty, she's happy; but when she loses it, she's sad. Valerie recognizes Brittany's distress and responds to it with a simple, soothing gesture.

Quite verbal at age four, Marc's response relates to the cognitive aspect of empathy At this age, he is beginning to see situations from another person's perspective more easily. Relating to Brittany's feelings, he acknowledges her unhappiness, empathizes, and then offers a strategy to make her feel better.

Lessons in Sincerity

Social psychologists believe that although children are born with a capacity for empathy, they can also learn to become empathic. However, empathy has to be natural, spontaneous, and sincere. Jarrod's teacher tells him: "Daniel is crying. Paint is splashed all over his picture. You must tell him that you're sorry." If four-year-old Jarrod is forced in such a way to say he's "sorry" without understanding why or how it relates to Daniel's feelings, he isn't really exhibiting or learning empathic behavior. In fact, the insincerity of this process may teach him that others' feelings don't really matter. Instead, the teacher needs to encourage Jarrod's participation in the process by asking: "How do you think Daniel is feeling? What might you do to help him?"

A Different Perspective

Some three-year-olds may not be able to respond to another child's feelings if they don't share the same feelings and perspective on a situation. While building a castle in the big outdoor sandbox, Ingrid yells loudly, "Hey! Stop stomping on my castle!" When questioned by the teaches three-year-old Leah, oblivious to both Ingrid's castle project and her feelings of frustration, says, "Oh, I was just taking a little walk on the beach." Because Leah didn't see herself as destructive, it is difficult for her to be empathic toward Ingrid and her situation.

Perception has a great deal to do with empathy By preschool age, children understand different emotions fairly well and know that everybody has feelings. However children need to understand that not all reactions to feelings are OK. Sometimes children laugh at others simply because everyone else does or as a reaction to being glad that the incident didn't happen to them. When Zach falls in the slippery mud, some children instantly giggle, point, and say, "You look funny!" But four-year-old Jang, sensitive to his friend's feelings, gives him a hand up and says, "I'll help you wash the mud off."

What You Can Do

Here are some ways you can help children learn to be more empathic and appreciate how different people express their feelings:

  • Teach words about feelings and emotions. Together create faces in a mirror or on flannel board and talk about how the expressions make the children feel-happy, mad, sad.
  • Display pictures depicting various emotions and empathic scenes. Use a camera to capture thoughtful interactions in your classroom, then mount the pictures and label them with the children's names and the helpful actions they're engaged in.
  • Keep dialogue open. Ask a child who is distressed what would make him feel better. Encourage other children to help assist with his suggestions, if possible.
  • Ask open-ended questions to help encourage empathy. By asking, "How can we help Dennis feel better about his broken toy tractor?" children will brainstorm meaningful ways to show kindness.
  • Be a kind and empathic role model. Demonstrate nonverbal and verbal strategies while working with needy children. Initiate caring gestures-a hug, a soothing back rub, holding or patting a hand. Use a soft, calming voice as you let a child know you understand how she feels.  

5 to 6 Showing Compassion  by Ellen Booth Church

On the playground, a few children gather around the teacher to talk about a friend who seems to be out of sorts. "Maybe Sophie is feeling sad because her mom had to go to the hospital," declares six-year-old Tyrone, demonstrating a mature level of awareness for a classmate's feelings. Five-year-old Regina suggests: "I missed my dad when he went away on a trip." Another small voice adds: "She could be scared too. It's scary when someone goes away." The teacher Mc Levine, asks: "What can we do to help? What would make you feel better if you were Sophie?"

Empathy-the ability to identify with and understand another person's feelings, situation, or motives-has its roots in discussions like this, which take place between a small group of buddingly aware children and a sensitive teacher. Mc Levine is conscious of all the emotions involved in the conversation and careful not to try to "fix" the situation by telling the children what to do. He's also careful not to discount their feelings by suggesting that Sophie will feel better soon. By acknowledging children's feelings and emotions, he is demonstrating empathy without passing judgment. His message is clear: Emotions are welcome in this class and can be expressed and discussed freely.

Discussing Feelings

Empathy develops from self awareness. As five- and six-year-olds become more aware of their own emotions, they begin to recognize them in others, and their emotional vocabulary expands. With this increased language facility, the doors open to in-depth discussions about emotions that are the main avenue for developing empathy skills. These discussions can come from a classroom situation, a current event, a shared reading of a book, a photograph, even a TV program that elicits an emotional response.

Interestingly, children at this stage really want to talk about how they feel. And by taking time to discuss the emotions of a book character; for example, or the feelings of a friend after a fight, you provide children with the raw materials for developing compassionate understandings and actions.

Reading Cues

Empathy requires the nonverbal skill of observation. Five- and six-year-olds are learning how to "read" others' feelings through their actions, gestures, and facial expressions, as well as understand their expressed words. Have you ever noticed how children watch your face as you talk to them? They seem to be scanning you for a hint to the feelings behind your words. This is a key empathy skill. The valuable adult skill of being able to "feel someone out" begins at this stage of development.

The ability to read nonverbal cues is also essential to the development of the social skills needed for group interaction. At circle time, the children are in a particularly rambunctious mood, giggling and wiggling as the teacher smiles and moves with them. Noticing the time, the teacher shifts her movements to prepare for a story, and her facial expression becomes quieted more focused, and serious. Like silent magic, some children detect her shift and settle down. Other attuned children, noticing the change in the group's energy, join in, while a few others remain unaware and continue wiggling.

People who know how to watch, listen, and observe the actions and emotions of those around them are often the most successful in life. A conscious alignment of self with others starts with the development of empathy in the early years. If you can demonstrate empathy, your children will be in the presence of their finest teacher.

What You Can Do

  • Be empathic. Avoid the simple "quick-fix" by solving children's problems or by giving them the comforting "everything will be all right" answer to their feelings. Instead, be a good role model by reflecting what they are feeling.
  • Use expressive photographs, drawings, and wordless books to provide practice in "reading" the nonverbal expressions and emotions of others. Remember that there is no right or wrong answer in these activities. Allow children the safety of expressing what they are feeling and imagining without criticism.
  • Express your feelings openly If you are having a hard day, tell the group. Not only might their reactions amaze you, your ability to verbalize a range of emotions will help children recognize and respond to the emotions of others.

  • Subjects:
    Early Learning, Character and Values, Social and Emotional Development
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