Teaching Empathy in Early Childhood

the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.

The development of empathy can begin from a young age given the correct environment to nurture this development, alongside the cognitive ability to do so. In our diverse and constant changing world empathy is a key ingredient for the future relationships of following generations. Encouragingly, education is shining more light and awareness on this topic in the form of Social Emotional Learning (SEL), thus affording it the value it deserves in our education systems. 

How does this look in the classroom?

Developing empathy requires one to be transparent in their communication by verbalising thoughts and feelings (emotions) with reason(s). For example, ‘Sam is crying because he is feeling sad. He is feeling sad because he is missing his daddy.’ This form of open communication brings awareness to feelings (emotions) by connecting them with reasons and examples/explanations, so that an understanding can be made of who and why. Through this communication you are modelling and providing real life learning of empathy! 

Classroom Empathy Development Inspirations…

+ Sharing circles – encourage expression of thoughts and feelings 

+ Role play – provide resources for children to develop empathy through imaginative play

+ ‘Hello’ game – children pair up and respond to teacher prompts by sharing with each other times when they felt a certain way (e.g. Share about a time when you felt happy and why)

+ Feelings art – children create art to represent different feelings and refer to these as discussion pieces when talking about emotions in the classroom at any time

+ Class Friend – use a stuffed animal as the class friend and send home with a child each week. Include guidance in the front of the ‘Friendship Book’ for children to write/draw about what they did with the class friend that weekend, and then the child can share this with the class. (See image)

The following link from the University of Pittsburgh Office of Child Development provides further informative reading on the development of empathy: http://www.ocd.pitt.edu/Files/PDF/Foster/27758_ocd_empathy.pdf

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