WHPS Blog

A Different Take on Empathy

Written by Dr. Tracy Ewing, Preschool Director (Oxnard St. Campus) on .

"How would you like it if someone did that to you?"
"Say sorry" ...after they’ve hurt a friend

While very common, these are actually not developmentally appropriate for most preschool children."

Find out why below!

One goal we have at WHPS is to support young children’s social and emotional development. An area that is particularly important during the preschool years is empathy. Parents and educators agree that we want children to be empathetic and caring individuals. Understanding how children’s minds develop can help us improve the way in which we teach our little ones to be more kind and empathetic.

Three Aspects of Empathy
Empathy actually encompasses three distinct aspects: Emotional Sharing, Empathic Concern, and Perspective-Taking.

  • Emotional Sharing - “Occurs when we experience feelings of distress as a result of observing distress in another individual.” For example, your child who was perfectly fine before may begin to cry upon witnessing another child crying. This is commonly seen during preschool drop-off.

  • Empathic Concern - “The motivation to care for individuals who are vulnerable or distressed.” This is the aspect of empathy we most often think of, and we see this in preschoolers when one child tries to comfort a crying friend by offering a tissue, a toy, or a hug.

  • Perspective Taking - "The ability to consciously put oneself in the mind of another individual and imagine what that person is thinking or feeling."

You can think of these as stages of empathy development. It starts with Emotional Sharing. As young children have opportunities to practice, they develop Empathic Concern. The last aspect to develop, Perspective Taking, is the hardest for children (and some adults too). Developmentally, many preschool children may not yet have the ability to truly take another’s perspective.

Theory of Mind & Perspective-Taking
Researchers have conducted a variety of experiments to better understand when and how children can understand other people’s mental states (theory of mind). “Theory of mind is the ability to recognize and attribute mental states—thoughts, perceptions, desires, intentions, feelings—to oneself and to others and to understand how these mental states might affect behavior. It is also an understanding that others have beliefs, thought processes and emotions completely separate from our own” (Pedersen, 2018). Children younger than approximately four years old are typically unable to understand perspectives separate from their own and the majority will not pass a simple false-belief task, which is designed to test how well a child can reason about other people’s thinking.

Instead of: “How would you like it..”
Have you ever asked your child: "How would you like it if someone did that to you?" Or asked them to say sorry after they’ve hurt a friend? While very common, as you can see, this is actually not developmentally appropriate for most preschool children. There are some specific things parents and teachers say and do to give children the opportunities they need to practice and develop these skills.

Tips for Parents and Teachers from (Teaching empathy: Evidence-based tips for fostering empathy in children):

  • If you observe someone in distress (in real life, on TV, or in a book), talk with your child about how that person must feel (Pizarro and Salovey 2002). Even a very brief conversation might have an effect.
  • One of the best ways to encourage empathy is to make children conscious of what they have in common with others.
  • Another is to get out and meet people from different backgrounds, and learn about what life is like in far away places.
  • Conversations are helpful, but it's worth remembering that kids are heavily influenced by what we actually do, and less by what we say. Decades of research indicates that one of the biggest predictors of racial prejudice—and a failure to empathize with members of other groups—is having little or no contact with people who aren't like you. Moreover, this enhanced empathy is linked with increased happiness and scholastic achievement (Le et. al 2009; Chang and Le 2011).
  • Fictional stories and real-life narratives offer excellent opportunities for teaching empathy and sharpening a child's perspective-taking skills. What do the characters think, believe, want, or feel? And how do we know it? When we actively discuss these questions, kids may learn a lot about the way other people’s minds work (Dunn et. al 2001).
  • Other research has shown that kids are more likely to develop an internal sense of right and wrong if their parents use inductive discipline—an approach that emphasizes rational explanations and moral consequences, not arbitrary rules and heavy-handed punishments.
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