“Empathy is not a fixed trait; it can be fostered. It can be encouraged and cultivated”
A quote by Samantha Rodman
Starting at 12 months of age children begin to develop a sense of individuality. This comes from realizing that they are their own person with their own thoughts, feelings and ideas. And noticing their peers have their own as well. We as mentors get to observe as well as guide the children around us down this path of discovery. Teaching others to understand the deep meaning of empathy can feel really tricky at times but demonstrating these strong ideas and with passion can assist us as mentors and parents.
When talking to a child about his/her emotions it always feels important to pause, hear them, and validate their feelings. This feels important because every emotion or feeling that we feel as humans are valid. Even though you might react or feel a certain way towards one situation doesn’t mean that everyone will feel those same feelings and it works for our thoughts to differ. When speaking with a child we can use this idea to help us model a bond of equality between mentor and student. Practicing this between peers can help support the understanding of empathy.
Another idea is practicing the concept of empathy through play. This can be modeled in multiple ways; We can pause and notice how our friends are feeling during key points of play time, whether that be solving a problem between peers(at this time we can obverse, sadness, anger/frustration and contentment, etc) or achieving a goal(and at this time we can observe happiness/excitement, togetherness, etc)
For Example:John has a toy truck and Sarah wants that truck. Sarah takes away the truck. John begins to cry.
One thing to try:
Take a moment to Pause. Sometimes, the best intervention is none at all. When you notice the situation escalating, move closer.
Narrate what happened
"John, you were holding that truck. Then Sarah grabbed it. You both want this truck."
Guide Sarah into noticing John's feelings.
"Oh. When you took the truck, it made John feel ________ (sad, angry, frustrated, etc)." Giving children words that label emotions, empowers them to use them for themselves over time. Bring attention to each of the child's faces, which builds a concrete connection between how children express and communicate with each other. "John's face looks sad. He wanted the truck. And you wanted the truck. That can feel so frustrating!"
Give guidance about what to do next time.
"Next time, you can hold on tightly and say, 'I'm using it!' This helps Sarah know it's not available."
"You can say, 'Can I have it?'. Then John will say yes or no, and you can see if it works!"
A common mishap with teaching empathy is teaching the words “I’m Sorry” as stated in a blog written by Dr. A. Graff, “We often insist that our toddlers say “I’m sorry” as a way for them to take responsibility for their actions. But many toddlers don’t fully understand what these words mean. While it may feel “right” for them to say “I’m sorry”, it doesn’t necessarily help toddlers learn empathy.” An approach that Graff suggests in the blog is to help direct children to focus on one anothers feelings and checking in to discuss them, being encouraging about the communication and labeling of emotions can also greatly support in guiding empathy in children. The discussion of different emotions can help better the depths of our understandings about each one.