Cultivating Empathy in Pre-schoolers

Posted on 04/22/12 by erynwicker No Comments

I recently read the book The Empathic Civilization by Jeremy Rifkin, which speaks to the
importance of developing empathy on a community and global scale for the sake
of the human race, both present and future generations. This got me thinking about how to cultivate empathy in children, from
preschoolers to highschoolers, in hopes of influencing them, their parents,
teachers, community members, and society at large to make a difference in the
lives of their neighbours (whether they be from across the street, the country,
or the world).

The ability to understand how others feel is
at the core of our humanity. The absence of empathy underlies war, genocide,
neglect, racism, abuse, and marginalization of all kinds. Empathy is part of
our emotional intelligence, our social development, our self-concept, and
builds on our self-awareness. The more empathetic we are, the more intelligent,
the more open to our own emotions, the more skilled we are in reading the
feelings of others. It is both a genetically determined and a learned skill. As
with any learned skill it can be trained and requires practice; however, it
needs to be natural, spontaneous, and sincere.

The development of empathy begins very early
in life, with the seeds for empathy planted by responsive parenting during the
infant-toddler period. Empathy then begins to grow during preschool, and takes
root in the elementary years and beyond. Although the best
training for empathy begins in infancy, it’s never too late to start. By the
time a child is in preschool, you can begin talking about how other people
feel, because by this age children understand different emotions fairly well
and know that everybody has feelings. Three and four year olds can begin to
associate their emotions with the feelings of others. They 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. Some are capable of seeing a situation from another person’s
perspective, yet they need to know that not all reactions to feelings are okay.

WHY develop empathy in preschoolers?

  • Helps them form friendships
  • Builds self esteem
  • Prevention of bullying
  • Empathy in the preschool years is related to
    emotional regulation and increased prosocial behaviours in the school years

HOW to help encourage empathy in preschoolers:

  • Help children to recognize their own feelings (teach
    words and label them)
  • Focus on similarities between oneself and others
  • Help children to recognize the feelings of others
  • Develop problem-solving skills
  • Practice positive parenting (praise and positive
  • Provide an environment conducive to positive
    behaviour (warmth, safety, clear rules and expectations, consistent schedule)
  • Be a role model for appropriate emotional responses
    (in all situations, with all different types of emotions)
  • Model empathy to your own and other children

By developing
empathy in children we have greater hope of changing the
world, and creating more peaceful, caring and civil societies; because we know
the best way to change tomorrow is to work with the children of today.
And remember, the way you show
your own empathy may be more important than anything you ever say about being empathetic.


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