By Jodi Legnon, Sherry Been, and Anita Ede
You scan your kindergarten classroom and see students working during centers when suddenly you hear, “No, you can’t play with the blocks!” Lilly moves toward Cody and pushes his body away. Cody crosses his arms over his chest as his lip quivers and tears stream down his face. You move toward the children knowing this is a teachable moment for Lilly, Cody, and the other kindergarten students, as you model using your words and perspective taking.
Children do not come into the world filled with empathy for others. This is a learned skill that comes from experiencing empathy towards themselves. Teachers are in a unique position to provide rich classroom experiences that foster empathetic behavior among children (DeMeulenaere, 2015; Ho & Funk, 2018).
So how do we support empathy development in the early childhood classroom? Teachers need to intentionally provide opportunities for children to build an understanding of how others feel. Let’s explore some activities with a focus on developing empathy by taking someone else’s perspective (Webster-Stratton & Reid, 2004).
1. A New Point of View
You can use literature to help children take a different perspective. Most children are familiar with The Three Little Pigs and believe that the wolf is a hungry villain. Children gain a completely different point of view when you read aloud Jon Scieszka’s True Story of the Three Little Pigs. In this story, the wolf suffers from allergies and accidentally blows down the houses of some very rude pigs with his powerful sneezes.
2. “We Love You” Boxes
Children fill these small boxes with drawings, cards, lotion, candy, and so on, and give them to others, such as people in a nursing home, hospital, or homeless shelter. These boxes are a symbolic way of expressing empathy and compassion for others.
3. Making Empathy Bracelets
Quick as a Cricket by Audrey Wood is a story about a boy who discovers he has different characteristics and feelings just like animals in the book. After listening to the story, each child makes their individual bracelet based on the feelings and characteristics they identify with in the story (The OT Toolbox, 2015, May 28).
4. Let’s Put a Name to It
The Center on the Social and Emotional Foundations for Early Learning (n.d.) provides a wealth of activities that help children identify and talk about their feelings.
These activities are examples of ways teachers can create opportunities for young children to learn and practice giving and receiving empathy in the classroom. Social–emotional learning is an essential piece of early childhood curriculum. Children internalize resources and how they see their parents’ care and empathize towards others. This is how they learn to care and show empathy towards others (Moreno, Klute, & Robinson, 2008). Because many children do not receive empathy at home or see empathy modeled, it is important for teachers to provide these experiences in the classroom. The more opportunities children have to give and receive empathy, the more it will become part of who they are.
As early childhood educators, it is our responsibility to foster the development of the whole child, not just cognitive development. Supporting the development of empathy is an essential part of social–emotional development. The more connections young children make to why empathy is important and how to feel empathy towards another person, the more kind, compassionate, and understanding they will become as adults.
Dr. Legnon is an Associate Professor at Northeastern State University. She teaches courses in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction. Her interests include preparing pre-service teachers, with a research focus on autism spectrum disorder, early childhood teaching, and elementary education.
Dr. Been is an Associate Professor at Northeastern State University and serves as the Elementary Education Program Chair. Her research interests include teacher professional identity, teacher advocacy, literacy, early childhood, and elementary teaching issues.
Dr. Ede is a Professor at Northeastern State University. Her focus is on preparing teacher candidates and advanced practitioners to meet the needs of children and families in highly diverse classroom settings.
Berliner, R., & Masterson, T. (2015) Review of research: Promoting empathy development in the early childhood and elementary classroom, Childhood Education, 91:1, 57-64, DOI: 10.1080/00094056.2015.1001675.
Center on the Social and Emotional Foundations for Early Learning. (n.d.). Resources: Practical strategies for teachers/caregivers.
DeMeulenaere, M. (2015). Promoting social and emotional learning in preschool. Dimensions of Early Childhood, 43(1), 8-10.
Ho, J., & Funk, S. (2018). Preschool: Promoting young children’s social and emotional health. Young Children, 73(1), pp. 73–79.
Moreno, A. J., Klute, M., & Robinson, J. L. (2008, July 15). Relational and individual resources as predictors of empathy in early childhood. Review of Social Development, 17(3), pp. 613 - 637.
Webster-Stratton, C., & Reid, M. J. (2004). Strengthening social and emotional competence in young children: The foundation for early school readiness and success. Infants and Young Children, 17, 96-113.