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Building Empathy in Children: Lessons From Early Childhood Education

Empathy is critical to developing the global competency of students. Today, Stefanie Paige Wieder, a child development expert with over 20 years of experience working with families and educators, shares lessons and resources for building empathy in students. Join Stefanie for an in-depth discussion on building empathy in children this Thursday, November 3, at 8 pm Eastern time on #GlobalEdChat on Twitter (just type in #globaledchat to follow the conversation).

By Stefanie Paige Wieder

Imagine if we stopped teaching math to children over the age of 5, yet expected them to grow up to be totally proficient with math in their daily lives. Sounds like a pretty bad idea, right?

Sadly, this is exactly how we treat social-emotional learning (SEL) in most cases. The good news is that, since early childhood education has long included SEL as one of its pillars, educators of school-age kids don't necessarily need to reinvent the wheel. 

The "empathy gap" has been getting a deluge of attention recently, and with good reason. Just google "empathy" and you'll quickly find that the ability to understand and share the feelings and perspectives of others is now widely considered a crucial 21st century competency. It's also the foundation of global citizenship. Students might learn about other people and about world events, but without empathy, they won't necessarily care what's happening or choose to be agents of progress and change.

It's wonderful that SEL is now getting the attention it deserves for students of all ages, but early childhood educators have known about the importance of empathy for a very, very long time. Friedrich Fröbel, Rudolf Steiner, and Maria Montessori, among other luminaries of the 19th century, grounded early childhood education in the importance of nurturing the whole child.

The Recipe for Empathy
Empathy can be defined as having a number of components. To my mind as a child development specialist, there are three major social-emotional and cognitive skills that come together to create the ability to empathize. These are:

  • Self-awareness, or the ability to identify and label one's own feelings and motivations
  • Perspective-taking, or the ability to see things from someone else's point of view
  • An understanding of cause-and-effect, or how one's own actions might impact others

In other words, empathy relies on an awareness of self, an awareness of others, and the ability to understand how the two interrelate.

A Snapshot of SEL in Early Childhood Education
Children in high-quality early childhood classrooms have ample opportunities to develop their understanding of themselves and others. SEL is considered a fundamental part of each child's preschool education, just as important as early literacy, math, and science skills. It's a key component of both curriculum design and student assessment. SEL also gets reinforced in countless "teachable moments" every day. Take a look at how the pre-K teacher in the following example fostered SEL in multiple ways:

Two 4-year-old children, Max and Suki, are in the block area of their pre-K classroom. Suki grabs a block out of Max's hand. Max yells, "No!"

A teacher approaches and asks, "Hey guys, what's going on?"

Max cries, "She took my block!"

The teacher, getting down to the children's eye level, asks, "Suki, why did you take the block Max was using?"

Suki says, "Because I needed a block like that one to build my bridge." 

The teacher asks, "Max, how did that make you feel?"

Max says, "Sad. And mad!" 

The teacher then inquires, "Suki, what could you do instead of grabbing the block?" [No response from Suki.] "Why don't you try asking Max if you could use that block?"

Suki asks Max if she could use the block. He says, "No, I need it now."

The teacher responds, "Okay, Suki. Max is using that block now. Let me help you find something else to build your bridge. Let's look at the block shelf."

Suki hands the block back to Max and follows the teacher to the block shelf. 

In this scenario, the teacher:

  • Set the stage for a safe and open conversation by signaling a neutral (rather than disciplinary) tone.
  • Prompted Suki to reflect on the motivation for her actions, promoting her self-awareness.
  • Gave Max practice with identifying and labeling his feelings.
  • Helped Suki see that her actions had an impact on another person, which encouraged her to think about cause and effect.
  • Gave both students the opportunity to assert their needs in an appropriate way.
  • Modeled respectful problem solving.

Over time, with consistent scaffolding from teachers, young children can begin to internalize these behaviors and do them more independently. This is the foundation of empathy. But students need continued guidance and opportunities for practice as they grow and their cognitive and social skills become more advanced.

SEL for School Age Children
BarefootBooks_ClassroomReading.jpegAlthough many formal curricula and learning standards for older children pay scant attention to "the whole child," I've seen firsthand how SEL can successfully continue past the early childhood years. When I was with the Lesley Ellis School in Arlington, Massachusetts, I had the pleasure of witnessing skilled teachers of elementary and middle school students continuing to weave SEL into the classroom. At times they adopted aspects of formal curricula like Open Circle, and at other times informally wove SEL into the existing curriculum units using books and activities.

While studying immigration, the 5th and 6th grade students at Lesley Ellis not only learn what some of the push/pull factors are that lead to people immigrating, but they also examine the emotional toll immigrants can go through by staging a mock Ellis Island. By "putting themselves into the immigrants' shoes" (so to speak), the students can, for instance, "experience" getting turned away if they are asked to represent someone who has a cough or doesn't fit some other type of health requirement. The students then write a journal entry, in the voice of their Ellis Island persona, describing the immigration experience.

This is a beautiful example of how SEL can and should grow with children as their skills develop. Like the students in the pre-K example, the kids in this scenario practice self-awareness, perspective-taking, and the appropriate expression of feelings through language. By not only learning about people from other parts of the world, but also experiencing what they might feel, these kids are on their way to becoming caring global citizens. 

Getting Scrappy with SEL
Even if you teach in a program where you have little control over the formal curriculum and there is no SEL curriculum in place, there are still ways to take the cue from early childhood education and meaningfully integrate SEL into daily classroom life. Here are some resources that will help you informally incorporate books, assignments, and discussions that promote self-awareness and perspective taking.

  • Barefoot Books is an independent children's book publisher with a wide selection of global, diverse, and inclusive books that foster SEL for children from birth through ages 8+. 
  • Dr. Michele Borba, author of UnSelfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World, offers practical articles and resources for educators on her website.
  • Roots of Empathy offers a fascinating, evidence-based classroom program used around the world that has been shown to raise social/emotional competence and increase empathy. Learning about their curriculum can give you some ideas for SEL lessons. 
  • The Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley website includes an education section with links to a variety of SEL articles for educators. 
  • The Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence website describes its "RULER" program, an evidence-based approach to teaching emotional intelligence, and has a publications section with research articles about the impact of SEL. 
  • Ashoka's Start Empathy Initiative offers the Start Empathy toolkit for educators Homa Tavangar, author of Growing Up Global, provides an overview.
  • Jordan Catapano, a high school English teacher in the Chicago area, wrote an excellent blog post in which he offers simple, empathy-boosting strategies teachers can use. 
  • School 21 in London uses what they call a Wellbeing framework to approach SEL. You can read about it and find practical tips from their curriculum.

Follow Stefanie and Asia Society on Twitter.

Photo copyright Barefoot Books. 

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