Cultivating empathy in pre-schoolers

By developing empathy in children we have greater hope of changing the world, and creating more peaceful, caring and civil societies

Dr. Rob Lees’ last column introduced you to the book The Empathic Civilization by Jeremy Rifkin, which speaks to the importance of developing empathy on a community and global scale for the sake of the human race, both present and future generations. Over the next few articles Marie Amos and I will write about how to cultivate empathy in children, from preschoolers to highschoolers, in hopes of influencing them, their parents, teachers, community members, and society at large to make a difference in the lives of their neighbours (whether they be from across the street, the country, or the world).

The ability to understand how others feel is at the core of our humanity. The absence of empathy underlies war, genocide, neglect, racism, abuse, and marginalization of all kinds. Empathy is part of our emotional intelligence, our social development, our self-concept, and builds on our self-awareness. The more empathetic we are, the more intelligent, the more open to our own emotions, the more skilled we are in reading the feelings of others. It is both a genetically determined and a learned skill. As with any learned skill it can be trained and requires practice; however, it needs to be natural, spontaneous, and sincere.

The development of empathy begins very early in life, with the seeds for empathy planted by responsive parenting during the infant-toddler period. Empathy then begins to grow during preschool, and takes root in the elementary years and beyond. Although the best training for empathy begins in infancy, it’s never too late to start. By the time a child is in preschool, you can begin talking about how other people feel, because by this age children understand different emotions fairly well and know that everybody has feelings. Three and four year olds can begin to associate their emotions with the feelings of others. They can make the connection between emotions and desires, and they can respond to a friend’s distress with simple soothing gestures. Sometimes preschoolers can only relate to the feelings of others if they share the same feelings and perspective on a situation. Some are capable of seeing a situation from another person’s perspective, yet they need to know that not all reactions to feelings are okay.

Why develop empathy in preschoolers?

• Helps them form friendships

• Builds self esteem

• Prevention of bullying

• Empathy in the preschool years is related to emotional regulation and increased prosocial behaviours in the school years

How to help encourage empathy in preschoolers:

• Help children to recognize their own feelings (teach words and label them)

• Focus on similarities between oneself and others

• Help children to recognize the feelings of others

• Develop problem-solving skills

• Practice positive parenting (praise and positive reinforcement)

• Provide an environment conducive to positive behaviour (warmth, safety, clear rules and expectations, consistent schedule)

• Be a role model for appropriate emotional responses (in all situations, with all different types of emotions)

• Model empathy to your own and other children

By developing empathy in children we have greater hope of changing the world, and creating more peaceful, caring and civil societies; because we know the best way to change tomorrow is to work with the children of today. And remember, the way you show your own empathy may be more important than anything you ever say about being empathetic.

Eryn Wicker (M.A., R.C.C.) is a mental health clinician with the Child and Youth Mental Health team with the Ministry of Children and Family Development in Chilliwack, B.C.