The Heart of Empathy
The month of February is filled with red hearts, valentines, and treats. It's a month that invites us to help children identify their own feelings and how they can support the feelings of others. Social emotional learning is important to all children's total development. This Month at a Glance focuses on the development of empathy in children.
Ephesians 4:32 "Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you."
The month of February is filled with red hearts, valentines, and treats. It’s a month that invites us to help children identify their own feelings and how they can support the feelings of others. Social emotional learning is important to all children’s total development. This Month at a Glance focuses on the development of empathy in children.
To understand empathy, we need to look specifically at the four areas of Social Emotional Learning:
• Emotional self-regulation and self-awareness: Children being able to control their own emotions and respond to experiences with developmentally appropriate emotion
• Social knowledge and understanding: Children’s understanding of social customs and norms.
• Social skills: Range of strategies for interaction with others, especially perspective-taking and empathy
• Social dispositions: Character traits that include curiosity, humor, open or closed mindedness, selflessness and selfishness.
For the purpose of this article, we will be focusing specifically on the third area of Social Emotional Learning which is social skills.
Empathy is the ability to identify and understand others’ feelings by experiencing the same emotion. Empathy is not inherited and needs to be modeled for children. It requires the non-verbal skill of observation, and research has shown that children as young as 18 months old have the ability to show empathy to peers by their gestures and actions.
Empathy has three distinct processes:
• Emotional sharing: experience the feelings as a result of observing others. This is typical in younger children.
• Empathic concern and motivation: the ability to care for individuals who are experiencing some type of emotion.
• Perspective taking: ability to put oneself in the mind of another individual and imagine what that person is feeling.
To help support empathy, children need to:
• Understand that they are a separate individual – their own person
• Understand that others have different thoughts and feelings
• Recognize common feelings• See a situation and imagine how they would feel
• Understand appropriate responses to particular situations
• Understand social norms
• Learn more about their own emotional responses
• Recognize words about feelings and emotions
Here are some teaching tips that support empathy development in your students:
• Provide children with support to develop strong self-regulation skills. Include secure attachments and emotional support and regulating negative emotions.
• Seize everyday opportunities to model feelings of others. Acknowledging feelings that children have in common under similar situations.
• Foster cognitive empathy through literature and role playing using non-fiction as well as fiction.
• Model caring behavior by responding to the needs of children and individualizing they type of comfort you provide.
• Develop cognitive empathy through compassion training for older children. This would include Kindness Curriculum, Second Step Curriculum for younger children and mindfulness and compassion meditation for older children.
Becoming intentional in the area of Social Emotional Development, and focusing on helping children understand empathy will support their appreciation of diversity and their ability to respect others in their community and the world. Let’s keep the heart of empathy alive through this month and beyond.
Epstein A.S. (2009). Me, You, Us: Social-Emotional Learning In Preschool. Ypsilanti, MI: High Scope Press
© Doris Knuth for ELEA 2018