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Emotional Competence Part 6: Developing Empathy




"In its most basic form, empathy is the ability to feel what another person is feeling."(i)


The last of Daniel Goleman's five areas of emotional intelligence is that of developing empathy. Interestingly, physiological systems for empathy seem to be hard-wired into the brain from the moment of birth. Mothers are often surprised to find that a young baby will cry when she hears another baby crying, and it has been found that even newborn babies can mimic certain expressions from the faces of adults.(ii) These are primitive responses, and the baby is probably not feeling any attendant emotions. However, as the child gets older she starts to actually feel the emotional impact of such experiences, and given the right environment will build upon this primitive wiring to develop a true sense of empathy.

Given that we are all wired to develop empathy, we might wonder why some preschool children show an enormous amount of empathy as they go about their daily activities, but others show very little, or in extreme cases, none at all. This is the product of a combination of both nurture and nature. Howard Gardner points out that we all have a different individual profile of strengths and weaknesses in what he calls the 'Multiple Intelligences', and that some people have naturally strong abilities in what he calls the 'personal intelligences'. If a child has a well-developed intrapersonal intelligence - an understanding of self - it is likely that he also has strengths in interpersonal relationships, with:




the ability to notice and make distinctions among other individuals
and, in particular, among their moods, temperaments, motivations, and intentions. (iii)


Undoubtedly, some children have a natural sensitivity to the moods and feelings of others, whilst others need help to fine-tune this awareness. Some of this is inbuilt, but a great deal depends upon the early experiences of the child, dating back to the moment of birth. The child needs develop what Stanley Greenspan calls a 'sense of shared humanity'. (iv) Good early experiences will help a child to build upon his intrapersonal intelligence, but poor experiences can have serious consequences:




Children shuffled from one foster home to another; children who have been abused or neglected; children whose parents are so caught up in meeting their own needs that they are unable to feel for their child; even children whose parents are devoted and protective but are so busy that they have no time left for exchanges of feelings - all are at grave risk for not fully realizing their own humanity. (iv)


Practitioners face the challenge of working with children who have different natural abilities in the personal skills, and moreover have had a wide range of experiences that will have influenced their development of empathy and morality. Some children will be much further along the road than others. In the early years, we need to be helping the child develop the ability to connect ideas to emotions and to give language to the many different feelings that he will experience. As he begins to understand his own emotions, he can begin to understand that others share his humanity and experience similar feelings.

However, we simply cannot expect all young children to have yet developed a great deal of empathy. We need to set limits and model appropriate behaviours. For example, when dealing with the class rabbit, the rule can be taught that, 'We touch the rabbit gently.' It is unrealistic to expect every child to feel empathy for the rabbit if someone tries to pull on its ears. Some children might even find such events amusing, and many adults might be disturbed to hear children giggling as they see an animal being handled inappropriately. But we need to remind ourselves that this is quite natural for children who have not yet developed the ability to imagine themselves in the animal's 'shoes'. What is important is that the appropriate behaviours are taught and consistently reinforced, along with verbalizing facts about the impact of behaviours on others, for example, saying, 'Thumper really likes feeling that gentle touch. I like gentle strokes too, like this', whilst gently stroking the child's head or arm. An exaggerated response can help to enforce a point, with clear facial expressions to back up a tone of voice.

These strategies of setting limits, teaching rules, and modeling and practicing appropriate behaviours work equally well with relationships with peers - for example, in teaching children not to snatch toys but to ask for help instead. At circle time, children can role play situations where both children want the same toy and express their feelings before experimenting with different ways of solving the problem. In this way, the child practices and experiences a range of appropriate behaviours. Eventually he will develop a level of empathy so that he can work out what feels appropriate to someone else. This will be a very gradual process, as children learn to subdue their own interests and see someone else's perspective.

Opportunities for teaching appropriate, empathetic behaviours arise continually during a normal preschooler's day. It is easier for children to practice empathetic behaviours when there is an obvious injury. For example, when Alex grazes his knee, the other children can be encouraged to sit with him or carry the first aid box or ask him what would make him feel better. It is more difficult to understand and identify with emotions that do not have physical 'evidence', such as hurt feelings, loneliness or jealousy. Everyday events can be used to help children to understand these more elusive emotions. For example, when Sakao cries because he misses his mummy, language can be given to his feelings and his friends can think of ways to cheer him up. Drawing upon your own experience can also be an effective way of helping the sad child and demonstrating empathy to the others, for example by giving the children anecdotes about yourself such as, 'When I was little I used to feel really sad when…' Opening up this sort of discussion enables the children to connect how Sakao is behaving to how they sometimes feel, and so aids the development of empathy whilst teaching strategies for helping others.

Using puppets and soft toys to tell stories is a wonderful method of helping children to imagine how another person might think or feel and then to practice appropriate responses. Gradually, children will transfer this learning to real life situations. They can be helped to do so by adults making connections aloud, for example by commenting, 'Kristy, you look sad. This reminds me of the story about Brown Bear. Can anyone remember what Brown Bear's friends did to make him feel better?' Making explicit comments and teaching specific strategies for helping others will aid the development of empathy. At first, some children may just 'go through the motions' without feeling any great sense of empathy, but in time, the emotions will develop to accompany the actual social skills. Frequent affirmations that, for example, the children are all good at working together, taking turns, sharing and listening to one another will help to reinforce the positive culture and development of empathy and good social behaviour.

But whilst they might display wonderful social skills in hypothetical situations in role play or stories, it is difficult for most young children to show empathy in a situation that is highly-charged and involves them directly. Young children are naturally egocentric and empathy is often pushed aside when they feel strongly about a situation. It is much harder to feel sad about Alex's grazed knee if Alex just pushed you off the climbing frame or snatched the best dinosaur from the toy box! A lack of a developed sense of empathy leads to what Greenspan calls 'polarized thinking and unreflective action'. This is what we see when there is a sudden outburst in the corner of the room as two children tussle over a toy or a share in a game. In these situations, it is useful if children have been taught skills in conflict resolution. The ideal is to teach children how to negotiate, see another person's point of view, and problem solve so that everyone is satisfied with the outcome. At first, this will take a lot of input from adults, but in time, as children develop more empathy and moral sensibility, they will be able to put themselves in each other's shoes and start to find solutions themselves. Moving in quietly and calmly, assessing the situation, seeing both children's points of view, and encouraging them to verbalise and listen to one another, are all strategies to aid them in feeling validated. Once a child feels validated, he is more likely to calm down and start to imagine what the other child feels, and is then more able to seek a solution that is acceptable to both parties.

Very occasionally a child may not respond to these strategies and may not seem to be developing an acceptable level of empathy or moral conscience. In these cases, professional assessment and intervention may become necessary. But for the majority of children, a caring, nurturing environment will support the natural development of empathy as children grow emotionally. A conscious policy and programme for encouraging empathy and kindness will support and promote its development. But it is important to remember that the development of empathy, just as all aspects of child development, cannot be forced. In the words of Jane Healy: 'Learning is something that children do, not something that is done to them. You have the wisdom to guide that process, but not to control it.'(v) Our job is to understand that the development of empathy, along with the other four aspects of emotional competence, is a gradual process. Our task is to create a supportive and empathetic environment, to respond to every incident with the conscious aim of helping children to develop empathy, and to provide activities and strategies that actively encourage all aspects of emotional growth. An empathetic child has self-knowledge and can manage his own emotions as he builds strong relationships with others. He then receives positive feedback from his relationships and acts appropriately because he feels that it is right in addition to knowing that it is right. Each aspect of emotional competence feeds into and promotes the others. Empathy for others is in some ways the 'icing on the cake', and when a child displays truly empathetic behaviour, we know that he is well on the way to becoming emotionally competent.

Exclusively for the Foundation Stage Forum - International copyright Nicola Call © November 2004. All rights reserved



(i) John Gottman, Ph.D., Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child, Simon and Schuster, 1997, p 73

(ii) Lise Eliot, Ph.D., What's going on in there? How the Brain and Mind Develop in the First Five Years of Life, Bantam Books, 2000 p 300

(iii) Howard Gardner, Frames of Mind, the Theory of Multiple Intelligences, Basic Books, 1983 p239

(iv) Stanley I. Greenspan, M.D., The Growth of the Mind and the Endangered Origins of Intelligence, Perseus Books, 1997, p 119

(v) Jane M. Healy, Ph.D., Your Child's Growing Mind, A Practical Guide to Brain Development and Learning from Birth to Adolescence, Broadway Books, 2001, p 331

Nicola Call
Nicola Call is author of The ALPS Approach and The Thinking Child. She is currently working on The Can-Do Club, a series of children's books with accompanying activities for the promotion of emotional competence. More information about Nicola's work can be found at her websites at acceleratedlearning.co.uk and www.candoclub.com

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