Teaching Children Empathy

Empathy is the child’s ability to recognize and understand another’s emotions. This is a gradually developing trait throughout the childhood years. While young toddlers may react to others’ emotions, their ability to understand those emotions or recognize the other person is having a separate experience is limited. To support their growing sense of empathy, parents and teachers can teach about emotions and perspective taking.

There are lots of ways to teach emotion language. Here is a link to our blog post on child-friendly ways to gradually introduce emotions: https://parentingbydrrene.com/2013/03/11/ways-to-teach-children-emotion-language/

The goal by kindergarten is to have a child that can use their words to express emotions, and to be able to express emotions in ways that don’t get them into trouble. To meet this goal, the child needs a lot of emotion language input. A few goals are that by two and three years old the child should be able to label emotions, by three and four identify emotional expressions, and by four and five talk about causes and consequences of emotions. Right along with this is teaching them ways to best express and ways to calm.

Two year olds are almost entirely egocentric in their view. By five and six years old they are often better able to see another’s viewpoint. An easy way to teach perspective taking is through children’s storybooks. Children are used to talking about the characters and plots in their storybooks. To introduce the idea of empathy, stop and ask questions about how the characters are feeling or what they are thinking and why. With older children, discuss how different characters might feel and think differently at the same point in the story. Another way to teach this is to point out others’ perspectives often, especially when there is a disagreement. With a three year old, this might sound like, “look at your friend.  He is sad, he didn’t like that.” As they are older, you might question their understanding.  With a six year old, you might ask, “how is your friend feeling now? What happened that made him feel that way?” The more they can reflect other’s emotions the better.

Children’s Books

Understand and Care by Meiners

How Full is Your Bucket for Kids by Rath and Reckmeyer

Stand in My Shoes: Kids Learning About Empathy by Sornson

Visiting Feelings by Ruenstein

Parenting Books

Teaching Children Empathy: The Social Emotion by Caselman

Roots of Empathy: Changing the World Child by Child by Gordon

Author: Dr. Rene Hackney

With a MA in school psychology and a PhD in developmental psychology, I founded and work as a parent educator at Parenting Playgroups. Somewhere in there I trained in the Developmental Clinic at Children's NMC and in the public schools. I have two beautiful, funny children who make me practice what I preach most everyday.

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