Building Empathy: 6 Ways to Develop Empathy in Children
Eleven years ago when my youngest daughter was four years old, we were sitting at the breakfast bar eating cheese and crackers for afternoon tea. We chatted about her day and what we were going to do that afternoon once we picked up her big brother and sister from school. I thought I was doing a pretty good job of creating a sense of normality even though I felt like my life was falling apart. My 17-year relationship with their father had just ended a couple of weeks before, prompted by a flurry of heartbreaking rumours. My daughter was watching me intently and out of the blue said, “Are you OK Mummy?” I replied, “Yes. I’m fine. Thank you darling,” and smiled. She said, “Your mouth is smiling but your eyes are sad.” I couldn’t believe how at her age, she was so attuned to how I was feeling: that my words and forced smile were unable to hide how I truly was feeling from someone so young.
Her ability to sense others’ feelings can be a blessing and a burden as she has had to learn the skills to not carry other people’s emotions. Some children like her are naturally born with higher levels of empathy than others, and most children benefit from help to develop it.
How do we increase empathy among our students and why is it so important?
Empathy is often referred to as being able to imagine walking in someone else’s shoes. It is more than kindness on the playground. It sets the course for how our children treat others into adulthood. It is the vaccination against bullying, domestic violence and issues of consent. It reduces discrimination against race, gender, religion and sexual orientation as empathy enables us to see past someone’s external behaviour or appearance to a real person who has feelings just like us.
Here are six ways you can develop empathy in children:
- The first step is for children to have an awareness and a vocabulary for how they are feeling. As adults, we are teaching them when we use words to describe how they might be feeling. For example: “I can see you are so frustrated… “ “It must feel overwhelming to….” Dr Daniel J Siegel uses the phrase, “Name it to tame it,” describing how emotional literacy is an important part of self-regulation, or as I say to students: It helps shrink down big feelings.
In my empathy presentation (part two of my Big Feelings School Tour) I teach children the phrase "How does it feel to be you?” Building on their ability to name their own feelings from the first session, I take them through the following steps:
- 1.Think about a time when you didn’t have anyone to sit with at lunch. How did it feel to be you?
- 2.Now think about seeing someone at school who is sitting by them self at lunch time, or has just started at school and doesn’t know anyone. How does it feel to be them?
- We then talk about our superpowers and how we can help or harm others with our words. We can laugh at people, call them names or tease them. Or we can use our words to help them, to be kind or to be a friend.
- I also talk about how we can tell how someone is feeling not just by their expressions and their words but also their body language. One of the children’s favourite parts of the presentation is when I get the teachers up on stage wearing a mask and they have to act out a certain feeling, and the children guess it by reading their body language.
- Right from a very young age through to the teenage years, we can train their brains to consider what other people might be experiencing. While reading books, we can pause and ask, “I wonder what Johnny is feeling when he went swimming for the first time?” “Even though children are born with different levels of natural empathy, it can be developed in any child.
- Or, “How do you think Jade is feeling when she lost her teddy bear?” After watching a movie with our teens, we can talk about how different characters might have been feeling at different parts of the story. We can take it a step further by asking how they might feel in that same circumstance.
- Don’t be afraid to express how you are feeling. It is great modelling when we articulate our feelings, and how we self regulate. For example, “I am feeling stressed right now so I am going to take some time to take some deep breaths and do some stretches to help myself calm down.”
Even though children are born with different levels of natural empathy, it can be developed in any child. It is worth the investment when we see children seeing things through others’ eyes and not only feel others’ pain, but do what they can to help.
As written for Teachers Matter issue 48