May is Friendship month at Childhood 101. You will see a range of posts by both myself and the regular contributors about friendship as it applies to our children and our own experiences as Mums. Today I would like to begin a short series about children’s social development with a post about empathy.
The ability to understand and share the feelings of another.
Teacher observation, 4 and 5 year olds, 2007
A child who has been told by another child, “You’re the roughest boy in the world,” is standing by the window looking sad. An educator suggests the child tells his peers how he feels. The child approaches the peers with verbal support from the educator who says, “X, Y and Z, A is upset because you said something that was not only untrue but unkind.”
X offers, “Can I get you a tissue?” A nods.
Y offers, “Do you want a hug?” A nods and says yes.
Z offers, “Do you need ice?” The educator reminds them that A’s feelings are hurt, not muscles or bones.
Z says, “Oh, well can we do anything else to help?” A nods and they have a group hug and resume their play.
Children learn socially through;
- Observing and imitating adults and other children. Your interactions with family, friends and strangers, your relationships and friendships, these are what your children see, mimic and learn from. More so then your words.
- Positive reinforcement. When your child does the right thing, be sure to notice it. Your positive, “How generous of you to share your car with Tommy,” has a much greater impact on their social development then a reprimand for not sharing. Always try to catch them doing the right thing, however small and expected the behaviour is.
- Opportunity to play with other children. Playing with children of the same age, older and younger all provide opportunities for your children to learn, observe and practice a range of social skills.
Concern for others and sensitivity to the feelings of others are important empathetic behaviours for young children to learn. To support your child as they develop these skills;
- Encourage them to talk about how they feel and what they want. And to listen when others do the same. For toddlers, teaching them to say in a strong voice, “Stop,” and to put up a hand in a stop motion is a good starting point. Preschoolers can be taught to say, “Stop, I don’t like that.” Kindergarten aged and older children can take this same approach one step further and say, “Stop, I don’t like it when you…(describe the behaviour).” This will empower your child to feel heard when they feel hurt or upset by others.
- Look for opportunities to support young children to be aware of the feelings of others and/or to solve social conflicts (these are often called ‘teachable moments’). When talking to a child or group of children, help them to recognise the emotion being expressed – “Sally is feeling sad because she kicked her toe”, to relate that emotion to their own experience – “Remember when you hurt your finger and it made you feel sad?”, and to think of ways in which they might offer support or assistance – “Can you think of anything which might make Sally feel better?”
- Talk about the feelings of characters in books that you read together. Just this morning Immy and I were reading the wonderful picture book, Amy and Louis by Libby Gleeson and talking about the sadness felt by the title characters as a result of them missing each other. Talk about all sorts of emotions – happiness, surprise, fear, anger, sadness, anticipation, love, and ask questions like, How can you tell what the character is feeling? Are there any obvious clues in their facial expression, actions and/or words? What has made them feel that way? What might make them feel better?
In what ways do you encourage your children to show empathy for others?