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5 Ways to Help Kids Grow Empathy

Updated: Jun 5, 2020

Are you tired of children being unkind? Aggression and violence are signs of a low empathy tank.

Empathy is a critical emotion with the ability to put yourself in the shoes of someone else and understand what they are feeling or experiencing. According to Dr. Michele Borba, empathy is core to everything that makes a society civilized, but above all, it makes children better people.

People who develop a high degree of empathy are good at managing relationships and relating to others. Empathy is key to happiness and success. Other benefits include:

  • Encourages tolerance in others

  • Promotes good mental health

  • Promotes social harmony and can reduce the likelihood of bullying

Sympathy, empathy, and compassion are often used interchangeably. The best way to grasp their differences is how you would respond:

  • Sympathy: "I'm sorry that happened to you."

  • Empathy: "I see your pain and I understand."

  • Compassion: "How do you need me to help?" (Compassion is empathy in action.)

While all three traits are valuable, we're honing empathy.

In our instant all-about-me society, empathy which is already embedded in every human gets clouded. Digital devices filled with selfies and participation trophies feed self-centered and entitled attitudes. It's troubling. We've got to change the culture's value of me to we.

No one has yet realized the wealth of empathy*, the kindness and generosity hidden in the soul of a child. The effort of every true education should be to unlock that treasure. ~Emma Goldman~

Teaching students to be mindful of empathy is empowering. The following are five ways to begin.

1. See Things From Someone Else's Perspective (Understand the needs of others.)

Perspective taking doesn't come naturally, and kids don't always grasp how behavior affects others.

One year I had a first grader who continually hit others and me. One day in his fit of rage, he hit my face so hard my glasses left an indention. It hurt. I cried.

Stunned, he stopped. It was the first flicker of empathy I'd experienced from him. Prior, he'd proclaim: I, me, and my with no consideration for others. At the moment a tear dropped from the corner of my eye, he stopped hitting. I explained to him that he hurt me but I forgave him. I simply stated, " Do you want me to hit and hurt you?" He shook his head from left to right. I talked through my emotions and unpacked his. For the first time, he understood what it felt like to be in someone else's shoes. From that day forward whenever he was on a me, me, me tirade, I'd remind him of the glasses incident and to see the situation from the other's vantage point.

One way to teach this concept is to read the picture book: Duck Rabbit by Amy Krouse Rosenthal.

Another way is to have a discussion around this picture.

Duck Rabbit optical illusion
What is it?

Some will see a duck (facing the left) and some will see a rabbit (facing the right). Both are correct. We can show each other the other person's perspective teaching a valuable lesson on learning to see things from others' point of view.

2. Read

Books transport children to other worlds and transform their hearts. Reading to and with children enables them to connect to characters' emotions. Data shows that when we recognize an emotion in someone else, our brains actually generate that same feeling. Reading is essential on many different levels but reading is a huge empathy builder. I'm a fanatical fan of reading aloud to kids. It makes a difference.

3. Master Self Regulation

Talking about all emotions, providing language, and role modeling correct emotional reactions to situations is a start to helping kids manage emotions. Science shows that practicing mindfulness- even minutes a day or a few weeks- can reap positive benefits such as reducing stress, increasing resilience, enhancing focus, stretching attention, and improving memory. Mindfulness also nurtures empathy and compassion. Taking a mindful minute break helps everyone pause to regulate emotions.

4. Kindness

Kindness is contagious. Kindness shifts kids' focus from themselves to others. Regular random acts of kindness create a ripple effect, nurtures empathy, and alters behavior.

Check out the children's book: One Drop of Kindness by Jeff Kubiak and an inspiring book by Tamara Letter, A Passion for Kindness. Both of these resources are excellent for cultivating kindness.

5. Teamwork and Collaboration

Working together on a common goal shifts the focus from me to we. Kids learn to appreciate others' gifts and talents realizing everyone is important. Both teamwork and collaboration require emotional and meaningful connection which leads to empathy.

Empathy is the root of humanity and the foundation to helping our children become good and caring people. Empathy gives them an edge on happiness and success.

Empathy empowers

It's never been more important. The ability to understand others' needs and feelings can be fostered. All it takes is being mindful- intentional. It's caught and taught. Purposefully role model and teach compassion for others. It's up to us to embed empathy in all we do and develop kind, compassionate, and empathetic kids.

You make a difference!


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*Original quote has the word sympathy. To avoid confusion, I substituted the word empathy for sympathy.


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