In our last article, Bully-Proof Your Preschooler, we featured tips and signs for helping young children deal with aggressors. Today we’ll take a look at empathy and its role in prevention.
Why empathy matters
Empathy is the ability to understand and identify with another person’s feelings. It includes regulating one’s own emotions and is central to success in social relationships. Children who are empathic are less likely to use aggression.
Empathy has to be taught
Although there is evidence that the human brain may be pre-wired for empathy, just ask a group of toddlers to share a toy and you’ll see plenty of evidence that empathy doesn’t come naturally! It has to be taught. That’s why you play a crucial role in the development of empathy skills – starting in infancy.
Where to start
The first step in teaching empathy is to help your child learn to recognize and label emotions. “The feelings that adults label for infants and toddlers on a regular basis are the foundation for emotional vocabulary,” says Emily Adams, a training specialist for the Early Head Start National Resource Center. With sign language, you can help your child begin to identify and label feelings even before your child begins talking. The Signing Time video “Family, Feelings and Fun” teaches signs and songs for feelings that appeal to children of all ages. You can make this Feelings Flip Book with your child – and and watch demonstrations of signs for feelings in the Signing Time Video Dictionary.
Online resources For parents, Dr. Gwen Dewar, creator of parentingscience.com, has several fascinating research-based articles on empathy:
For teachers, the NAEYC publication The Visible Empathy ofInfants and Toddlers summarizes a research study on empathy in a child care setting. It includes examples of how non-verbal communication (signs) enhanced children’s self-control in peer interactions.
Also, an evidence-based classroom program for teaching empathy is available through Roots of Empathy.
Coming up next in this series: Cultivating Creativity