Teaching Empathy: Can it be Done?

Johnny the three year old gets his toy stolen by his buddy named Dillon. Johnny gets mad, and punches Dillon. Dillon starts crying, and Johnny grabs the toy and walks away unfazed. If you were the teacher in this classroom, how would you proceed? We’ve all been in this situation.  Inappropriate actions are taken by one child that hurt another.

How we respond in these situations is crucial to how children develop empathy. This blog post will seek to convey how we as educators, parents, and guardians can help to instill strong empathy in the children around us.

There is a common misconception that young children are incapable of feeling empathy, largely thanks to an article posted on Facebook 3,500 times by a Huffington Post blogger.  The research doesn’t convey this.  According to Psychology Today, infants as young as six months old prefer to be around people whom help others.




With each stage of development children become increasingly able to practice empathy (source: Ages and Stages via Scholastic).

  • Soothing an infant helps them learn to self-soothe, and later soothe others.
  • Toddlers mimic others’ feelings.  This is the reason when one toddler begins to cry, another will often follow and start crying.
  • By four years old, children are able to consciously consider the feelings of others, and to see their perspective.

Empathy is like a muscle, the more we practice it, the stronger our abilities become.

What are some ways to help children strengthen their ability to empathize?

  • Help them develop an emotional vocabulary:  Many children struggle to explain how they feel because they simply lack the vocabulary to do so.  Speak often with kids about different feelings and incorporate discussions around those feelings into classroom routines.
  • Utilize emotion flash cards: These help children learn to distinguish emotions from each other.  If they learn what sadness looks like on a flash card, they’ll have an easier time noticing if a classmate is sad.
  • Model: Children mimic adults. Make sure you are acting empathetic on a daily basis and explain why you are taking empathetic actions.
  • Ask prompting questions: Why do you think John feels mad? What has caused your brother to be angry? How would you feel if that happened to you? Questions like these prompt children to consider how they would feel if they were in someone else’s shoes; this is the essence of empathy.
  • Speak often with children about how they are feeling:  To practice empathy effectively, it is important to be able to practice self-awareness. If children aren’t aware of their own emotions, its hard to be aware of someone elses’s.
  • Role-[laying games: These help children act as another person and to imagine the perspective of another person. For example, playing dress-up a child might act as a fire fighter.  While doing this, the child is trying to see the world through the lens of a fire fighter, which is in fact an act of empathy.

Are Babies Born with empathy?

This video is an illuminating resource for learning more about how infants develop empathy and character in general through the use of science. Check it out!

Should we force children to say sorry?

According to the Today Show, forcing children to “say sorry” when they misbehave may be sending the wrong message.  For a child to “be sorry” they must understand that they did something wrong, or that they in some way hurt someone else. Without this understanding, forced apologies leave children feeling angry or shameful. This isn’t to say that “saying sorry” should be thrown away, instead we should focus on helping children realize what they have to be sorry about, and how they can correct the situation and move forward. By helping illuminate why the child should feel sorry, we are helping them practice empathy. Without empathy, forced apologies become a child’s way of quickly moving on without them really considering the consequences of their actions and how they affected others.




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