Fostering Empathy in Elementary School Aged Children

Posted on 04/22/12 by erynwicker No Comments


Empathy: the ability to identify with,
and understand another person’s feelings, situation, or motives. Humans are born
with this capacity but it must be nurtured, learned, and experienced.

As I wrote last week, empathy begins
to grow during the preschool years. In fact, after that article, Kathy Antonio,
Director of the A is for Apple Daycare Centres, wrote to share with me some of
the innovative programs they offer that are aimed at teaching children emotional
literacy, and thereby empathy. They currently offer two programs at their
sites: Safe Spaces, which nurtures children’s self esteem and teaches
them to care about others so they can learn to express their emotions
without hurting each other; and Seeds of Empathy, designed
to foster social and emotional competence
and early literacy skills and attitudes in preschoolers.

However, it is during the elementary years that empathy either takes
root and becomes a way of life or emotional callousness sets in. In order to
empathize with others, children must be able to read emotional cues such as
facial expressions and body language from others. As their emotional vocabulary
expands they are able to have more in-depth discussions about emotions, and
they can begin to grapple with increasingly complex moral decisions in which
they must realize that someone else’s feelings may be different than their own.
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. It’s important to take advantage of every opportunity,
presented or created.


Adults can help children recognize and learn about emotions
in everyday life situations. They can describe the feelings of others,
interpret the body and facial cues, and pass that along that ‘code’ to children
for reading emotions (because people who know how to watch, listen, and observe
the actions and emotions of those around them are often the most successful in
life).  It’s also important for
educators, coaches, parents, etc., to be conscious of all the emotions involved
in a conversation and to try not to “fix” the situation by telling
children what to do. It’s about acknowledging children’s feelings and emotions
without passing judgment, so that empathy can be demonstrated.

But there might be times when it will be impossible for kids to learn or
think about the feelings of others. Adults should not expect children to feel
empathy for others when they are dealing with difficult feelings of their own.
For example, when children are angry, frustrated or sad they are processing
their own feelings and will be better served if they have resolved those feelings
before discussing empathy for others.

Helping kids read emotions and develop empathy is an ongoing process and
can’t be taught in a few days or weeks. Children need lots of opportunities to
learn about how others feel through experiences and through repetition. And
most importantly, modeling empathy is the best teaching tool.


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