Empathy – the ability to understand how others are feeling and respond with compassion – is an emotional skill that often seems to be in short supply in children and adults today. Empathy leads to the social skills and personal relationships which make our lives intricate and beautiful, so teachers and parents must learn up-to-date methods to encourage empathy in childhood.

Parents can start to encourage empathy in infants and young toddlers by creating a strong loving bond with their children and modeling kindness and calm behaviors.  Around 6 months, children begin to use social referencing – they look carefully at their parent’s reactions to gauge how to respond to new people and situations.

It is beneficial for parents to respond positively and joyfully to create a sense of safety and security. Between 18 and 24 months, children begin to recognize themselves in the mirror, which indicates a firm sense of self. This is also when they first begin to show theory of mind – they can identify their own feelings and desires and start to perceive that other people have separate feelings and desires. 

A child is ready to exhibit empathy after they can recognize the common feelings that most people experience – happiness, anger, sadness, etc. – and are able to look at a situation and imagine how they might feel in the moment. In the home, parents must start with safety.

Parents should build consistent family routines in the morning and at bedtime, and set consistent meal times, chore assignments, and limits on play or internet time. Parents build empathy by telling stories so that children learn to see the world from other perspectives and by helping children notice the lives of others.

Kids also need chances to calm themselves, regulate their emotions, delay gratification, and stay focused. These self-regulation skills help children look beyond themselves.

Parents must model empathy and make discussing emotions a regular part of their lives. Most importantly, parents must model love. Sornson states, “When you love someone, you give energy and attention to notice their well-being.”

IWell-established rules and routines help children recognize which behaviors lead to positive outcomes. Teachers should consider developing a clear set of expectations about how adults will treat students in the classroom and how students will treat each other. Commitments to respect must be made and honored. Teachers should also model empathy and use great literature to inspire students to understand the experience of others.   

Shannon Brown is a head teacher at Little Genius International Kindergarten with a Master’s in Public Health. She cultivates healthy living by practicing yoga and rock climbing and has been living and teaching in HCM since 2014.