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by Susan Rudich
The Merriam-Webster online dictionary defines empathy as the ability to understand and share another person’s experiences and emotions. That might sound rather sophisticated for the preschool crowd, but they are truly up to the task. Here are three ways to begin:
Model empathy. Children learn by watching their parents, caregivers and teachers. To teach empathy, model empathy. One way is by narrating situations. Perhaps Shane sees his friend Kiana crying because she has fallen at the park. Consider saying, “It looks like Kiana hurt her knee. Let’s see if she wants a band-aid.” When a child hears an adult’s concern for another’s experience, he begins to develop his own mental map of empathy.
Label the emotion. Our parental instinct is to shy away from discussing negative emotions, such as anger, sadness and frustration. We do this lovingly, to protect children. However, naming a feeling helps a child own the experience and, over time, recognize it in others. So, when Jax is upset because Ben is using his favorite toy, rather than solving the problem for the boys, guide Jax with: “I can see that you want to play with the train that Ben is using. It is hard to wait. It is hard for me to wait, too. Let’s make a plan with Ben so you can have a turn.” Jax might not be happy waiting, but in time Jax will be helping others when they are “stuck.”
Acknowledge acts of empathy. When Noa helps his younger sister find her lovey, let Noa know you’ve noticed. Consider saying, “I could see that baby Carrie was getting frustrated because she couldn’t find Fluffy. You were so thoughtful to help her.” Seize opportunities to offer praise with specifics.
As you model, label and acknowledge acts of empathy, your child will become increasingly aware of other’s experiences and feelings. Keep in mind that, like riding a bicycle, it will take practice. The rewards will be worth the effort.
Susan Rudich is an early childhood educator, writer and mother of four. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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