Teaching Empathy

Teaching Empathy 

 Empathy is the ability to understand another’s perspective and to consider it before acting. This is a difficult skill for a young child who is egocentric—in the “Me!” stage. The ability to feel empathy is directly related to the ability to form relationships. Relationships give children the feeling of security, which allows them to feel safe and move beyond their own needs. Children learn to care about others when they experience the feeling of being cared for themselves.

There are many benefits to teaching empathetic behavior and strengthening children’s moral development:

  • Positive interactions among children: as children gain the ability to understand their own emotions and feelings they can better understand the feelings of another. Attainment of these skills will create a more cohesive classroom environment with less challenging behaviors.


  • Strong interpersonal skills that help children to be successful later in life: as children fain the ability to put themselves in another’s shoes, they will have the ability to get along well with others. This skill will later affect a person’s ability to get a job, build relationships, and communicate their needs appropriately.


  • Getting along with other builds self-esteem: positive self-esteem strengthens a child’s ability to feel good about the choices that they make. Children will build strength and confidence in who they want to be and have the ability to allow others to be who they want to be.


  • Beginning to understand social responsibilities: as children gain the skills of empathic behavior, they will recognize how their actions affect other people and events. This presents an opportunity to teach children how to care for others, plants and animals, and the environment.


Strategies for Teaching Empathy

  •  Have live plants and/or a garden for the children to care for. Children can work together to create and care for living plants. Children will learn quickly how their care is required to keep the plants alive.


  • By having a pet in the classroom for the children to care for, the children will learn the responsibility of providing food and water for the pet’s survival. They will also be able to build a bond or relationship as they care for the pet. If the children are too young of unable to care for a living creature or there is a fear that the animal may be harmed, a stuffed animal can be introduced as a new member of the class. A stuffed bear needs love and caring, too. The children can name the class mascot and care for him during class and on weekends. A journal can be kept of the pet’s weekend adventures.  Children will begin to think about another’s feelings as they imagine what their pet was thinking and feeling.


  • Talk with the children in the classroom about those who are absent. Where are they? Why are they not at school? Are they sick? Are they visiting a friend? Will they be missed at school? What fun activities will they be missing while they are absent?


  • Provide ample opportunities for children to discuss their emotions. Supply children with the vocabulary to sue in explaining their feelings. Discuss all feelings equally. Remember there are no wrong feelings. But there are appropriate ways to express feelings.


  • Read books that lead to discussions about emotions. Include books that lead to discussions about some of the more uncommon feelings (for example, jealousy or envy) or those that may be difficult to discuss (for example, embarrassment or shame).


  •   Provide role modeling opportunities. It is important to teach appropriate behaviors when children are not angry. When a child is overwhelmed by their emotions, it is difficult for them to apply reason or to think beyond themselves. Discussing scenarios during small group activity time gives children the opportunity to practice skills and use their reasoning abilities.


  • Discuss facial expressions. Young children are just beginning to learn how to interpret facial expressions.  It is difficult for a child to recognize how their actions are affecting their playmates, and because children do not have the expressive language that an adult has, it is not until the other child hits them or cries out that they realize that they realize that they were bothering her.


  • The mind and body are connected and when children feel emotion it affects their body sensations (for example, anger and embarrassment feel ‘hot’ and happiness feels ‘bubbly’). Talking to children about these sensations will help them understand and recognize how their bodies are affected by emotion and to gain better control.


From Teaching Empathy by Denise Cavner. Exchange Magazine, January/February 2008


Empathy is tied to development and requires the ability to understand the world beyond oneself. For the first year and a half of life, children understand the world only as it relates to them. If they are hungry, hot, soiled, or in pain, they cry; and, depending upon the responses they get, they learn how to respond. This innate aptitude to replicate behaviors is wired into our brains through ‘mirror neurons’, which predispose use to repeat what we see and experience.

Eventually, children learn that there are others out there. And, surprise—those others can experience pain (when I poke her she cried); fear (we both scream when the door slams); or hunger (I can’t have all the cookies for myself). As young children navigate this new world of ‘others’, there are many opportunities to encourage empathy.

“Mary is said. She is crying. It hurt her when you hit her with the sand funnel.” Such experiences, repeated over and over again, usher in empathy. As the needs and emotions of others are named and explained, and children are invited to respond in the caring ways they’ve experienced, empathy grows.


From Nurturing Compassion by Roslyn Duffy. Exchange Magazine, May/June 2009.