“Kids are so empathetic. We can learn a thing or two from them” said no one ever. Have no fear, there are steps we can take as teachers to develop our students’ empathy. Empathy is one of the most significant precursors for skills like collaboration, cooperation, and communication (Berliner & Masterson 2015). When children lack empathy, classrooms can be come a bit hostile. By allowing children to freely express and shift between their emotions, prompting them to take on another perspective, and incorporating positive classroom management, we can help develop empathy in the early childhood classroom.
I observed a preschool-age classroom and overheard a conversation between a three-year-old boy and a three-year old girl that went something like this:
Boy: “Hey! I was playing with that!”
Girl: “I need more. It’s mine.”
The boy proceeded to cry. Through his grief and anguish, he managed to seek my help as the girl continued to play with a smile on her face. Naturally, I went up to the girl and explained why the boy was upset. Understanding she was three, I knew empathy may not be a skill she had developed. I asked her to think about what it would feel like if she had gotten a toy taken from her. She responded with “sad”. I asked her to think about a time when she felt sad and if she liked it or not. I then suggested that the students could share the toys and collaborate. Both students agreed, and began playing peacefully. By taking on a different perspective and allowing the children to feel their emotions, I felt that the girl began to develop some form of empathy.
Teachers can also foster empathy development through daily classroom routines. Teachers who model empathy and exhibit characteristics of warmth and responsiveness, similar to authoritative parents, could help promote empathy in students. (Berliner & Masterson 2015). Kids are like sponges and soak up whatever their teacher is modeling, whether we know it or not. By incorporating empathetic classroom management, encouraging emotional expression, and having students gain a new perspective, we can create a community of learners.
Berliner, R., & Masterson, T. L. (2015). Review of Research: Promoting Empathy Development in the Early Childhood and Elementary Classroom. Childhood Education, 91(1), 57–64. https://doi.org/10.1080/00094056.2015.1001675