Tuesday, June 22, 2010

How to teach empathy?

This morning as I went out for a jog, I was sad to see a rabbit dead in the road, run over by a car. Next to the rabbit, sitting right on the curb, some three feet away, was another rabbit...perhaps his partner, certainly his friend...present, near, sitting with the dead rabbit. I was moved to tears. I walked respectfully by, thinking, "Wow, even our dear little animal friends have empathy. Feel pain for others. Feel loss."

I believe we are all born with empathy, with the possibility of being empathic.

I also wonder if there is a window in which, developmentally, this trait must be "solidified" in order to be intrinsic to one's being, in order to be lived out rather than stifled or shut out. If there is such a window, I am certain it is the early childhood years.

I have met (and heard about) many people that seem to not be empathic. Pick up a newspaper and read the stories and you will see lots of ugly behavior - defensive, self-focused, embittered, detached, uncaring, bullying.

Parents and teachers of preschoolers often ask me - Why does he hit everyone? Why does she boss her friends around? Is he a bully? How can I stop her from being a bully? At a training workshop last fall, one teacher surmised about her 4 year old student's frustrating behavior - "he's just trying to get my goat, looking for attention." I'm sorry, but I just do not accept that kind of negative thinking. I think it is our job as educators and parents to teach empathy, to provide a positive learning environment where children's feelings can be explored and self-regulation and understanding can begin.

How do we ensure that our children will grow with softer hearts? How do we teach this, early on?

Simply put, our home lives and childcare programs must demonstrate and reflect empathy. Teaching a child to be empathic will be easy and painless if they are surrounded with an empathic world - with loved ones who reach out to help those in need, modeling the appropriate way; with adults who speak kindly and with understanding, encouraging and laying the groundwork for children to get along together; with parents and caregivers who don't get angry, defensive, and presumptuous when a child misbehaves, but who stay calm while setting higher expectations for how behavior should be.

At that wonderful "Friendship Skills" training I attended back in March (see my 24 March 2010 blog post ), Phil Strain noted that one of the most important qualities in any friendship is "reciprocity" - the ability to give to others when you aren't necessarily getting something in return...you have trust in your relationship, you know there is mutual give and take. Phil Strain noted what a difficult concept this is to get across to young children.

Realistically, you don't tackle this as a one-time subject unit - "Today, children, we are going to learn about empathy." Instead, learning opportunities must be woven into the day, day in, day out.

Here are a handful of ideas:

- One trick I employ is simple mantras, referencing a higher moral ground:

"Everyone is safe and loved here."
"It is our tradition to show kindness and respect with one another."
"We are gentle with our hands. We are kind to others."
"It's not our tradition to yell."
"Let's hear what she has to say. It is right to listen to others and hear what they are thinking."

- In my classroom, I have a job of "Comforter" - this pair of children is responsible for
bringing our class boo-boo bear to any child that is hurt or crying during the morning. (Three year olds are "ambulance chasers," running up to see...not necessarily to care! I'm trying to teach them the next step in a healthy relationship.)

- At circle time, we often play the game "Give a Compliment," where, one at a time, each child rolls a ball to a friend across the circle and gives a compliment about that person. Learning what compliments are and how to give them is a definite skill! (See Responsive Classroom for this and other great games and activities that help children learn to share and appreciate one another.)

- When I read storybooks, I often ask the children what they think other characters are feeling - much like Jon Sciezka's The True Story of the Three Little Pigs by A. Wolf. These can be wonderful lunch time and circle time discussions - what do you think Mommy Owl was thinking when she was gone from her Owl Babies? Or, how do you think Daddy felt when he couldn't understand what his daughter Trixie wanted in Knuffle Bunny? The goal here is to stretch children to consider another perspective.

- Perhaps most importantly, simply gather together with the children in your class or with your family...develop rituals and opportunities for loving, caring exchanges together. Let children see and hear what others are thinking, feeling, hoping, and believing - and to become part of their community.

These ideas are really too few in number. There are so many more things we adults could do to introduce empathy to children. As with all things early childhood, there is no easy, one-step answer...helping a child be empathic takes time and focus. What are some other ideas? I'd love to hear from you. This is a topic worth exploring further.

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