Developing Empathy in Children

HVS Counselor Newsletter

Why Empathy is So Important

Empathy, or the ability to know how another person is feeling, is often considered a basic trait that all humans possess. In reality, an individual’s level of empathy development can be placed on a continuum, with some people having highly developed abilities to participate in the feelings of another while others struggle to identify with some of the most basic human emotions, like sadness and anger. Instead of thinking of empathy as an all or nothing personality trait, it should be seen as a skill that can be developed and nourished in children, leading them into a lifelong ability to connect with others, tolerate differences and take an active role when they see that someone needs help or understanding.

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Empathy, however, is not easy. It can be uncomfortable to experience the negative emotions of others, so it’s not surprising that many children avoid developing the ability to walk in another person’s shoes. Helping children through those barriers and giving them opportunities to practice experiencing the perspective of others can significantly increase their emotional intelligence, giving them the lifelong ability to successfully build relationships in both their personal and professional lives.

How Can Parents Help Children Develop Empathy?

Gwen Dewar, PhD (2017), has some excellent tips for teaching children empathy based on what science has taught us about how individuals learn any new skill.

Tip #1: Provide children with the support they need to develop strong emotional regulation skills

Children will struggle to identify with the emotions of others if they are unable to handle their own emotions. Children with secure attachments to the adults in their lives are more likely to connect with others offer help when they see someone in distress. Dewar suggests parents take on the role of “emotion coaches”, which means helping children name the emotions they are experiencing instead of dismissing them, identifying triggers to their negative moods and collaborating with their child to create a plan for handling strong emotions when they arise.

Tip #2: Consistently Model Empathy for Your Children

If you encounter someone in emotional pain, even if it’s on TV or in a book, discuss with your child how that person must be feeling. Even taking just a minute or two to process another’s emotions over time can lead to a significant change in the ability to take the perspective of others.

Tip #3: Help Kids Identify What They Have in Common with Others

People generally find it easier to empathize with people who they feel are similar to them. Teaching kids to look for similarities, rather than differences in others, is a critical element of developing tolerance and empathy. In fact one of the biggest predictors of racial prejudice, the inability to empathize with members of a different group, is a lack of exposure to people different from themselves. As a result, exposing students to different experiences and giving them opportunities to interact with a variety of people from different backgrounds is a great way to develop both tolerance and empathy. Even taking the time to learn about different cultures and people vicariously through media can make a powerful impact on a child’s ability to take another’s perspective in a variety of situations.

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How Are Schools Helping to Develop Empathy in Their Students?

In the Classroom: Teaching students about different cultures and supporting a classroom environment that fosters multiculturalism, a sense of appreciation for diverse cultures, helps significantly improve students skills in empathy and tolerance. Celebrations that embrace a caring and inclusive learning community, like the Martin Luther King March and celebration in our community and classroom activities further enhance learning. Studies also show that schools that embrace multiculturalism have happier students with increased academic performance.

Classroom Guidance Lessons: Developing empathy is the foundation for most anti-bullying programs that counselors in our district deliver in the classrooms. Why? Studies consistently show that 85% of the students in our schools are not victims or bullies, they are bystanders. Bystanders are the people who witness bullying, but are unable or do not know how to help victims in need. In classroom guidance lessons, counselors teach students how to take the perspective of a victim and then giving them concrete ways from low level to high depending on their individual comfort levels to interfere and help someone in a bullying situation is the most effective way to create a positive, tolerant peer culture (Bonds & Stoker, 2000).

Small Group Support: Counselors run a variety of groups that use empathy and tolerance as the basis for supporting the emotional and social growth of students. Examples of groups in the various buildings include: grief, anxiety and school adjustment, friendship and social skills groups.

Individual Support: As HVS counselors work with students individually to help them deal with interpersonal conflict in their lives, empathy places a big role in helping students broaden their perspectives and opens the way for productive problem solving and conflict resolution.

Resources for Parents and Students

Teaching empathy: Evidence-based Strategies for Fostering Empathy in Children

Roots of Empathy

Words Can Change Your Brain by Andrew Newburg, MD and Mark Robert Waldman (A Plume Book, 2012).

Bully-Proofing by Marla Bonds, Psy.D and Sally Stoker, MSW (Sopris West, 2000)

Brene Browne on Empathy

Be That Person

Empathy Glasses