Lessons in nurturing empathy and caring in young toddlers

“Empathy” basically means the ability to understand and share the feelings and viewpoints of others and is the widely recognised as the fundamental 21st century proficiency. It can also be called the corner stone of universal citizenship. We learn about other people and about world events, but without empathy, we do not necessarily care what’s happening and the same goes for the kids as without feelings for others, they won’t be able to empathize.

The feeling of empathy cannot be developed overnight or can be taught when we attain adulthood, on the contrary it needs to be developed from a very young age. Consequently the pioneers of early childhood programme such as illustrious Maria Montessori has included SEL (Socio-emotional learning) as one of the pillars of the ECE (Early Childhood Education)

There are three major social-emotional and cognitive skills that come together to create the ability to empathize. These are:

  • Self-consciousness i.e.  the ability to identify and label one’s own feelings and motivations
  • Perspective-taking i.e. the ability to see things from someone else’s point of view
  • An understanding of origin-and-consequence i.e. how one’s own actions might impact others.

A few recommended ways to teach empathy to the toddlers’ are-

  • Label the feeling
  • Praise empathetic behaviour
  • Encourage Pre-schooler to talk about his feelings and yours
  • Teach verbal cues
  • Teach non-verbal cues
  • Teach basic rules of politeness
  • Don’t use anger to control the child
  • Set an example
  • Help kids develop a moral identity
  • Help kids find their inner hero
  • Encourage empathy through stories
  • Validate the child’s difficult emotions
  • Use pretend play.

Milestones in empathy in the toddler can be celebrated when he

  • Establishes a secure, strong, loving relationship with you
  • Begins to use social referencing
  • Develops a theory of mind i.e. his own understanding of situations
  • Recognizes one’s self as an individual different from his parents

When a child grows a little older, he still needs to acquire Social Emotional learning that can be defined as “social and emotional competence” i.e.  “the ability to understand, manage, and express the social and emotional aspects of one’s life in ways that enable the successful management of life tasks such as learning, forming relationships, solving everyday problems, and adapting to the complex demands of growth and development.”

The perspective changes when the child becomes a little older but the intent and purpose of inculcating empathy remains the same. Thus empathy in other words is simply an ability to imagine how someone else is feeling in a particular situation and respond with care. This is a very complex skill to develop so when a child is able to empathize with another person it basically suggests that the child:

  • Understands that he is his own person
  • Understands that others can have different thoughts and feelings than he has
  • Recognizes the common feelings as happiness, surprise, anger, disappointment, sadness and many such feelings
  • Is able to look at a particular situation and imagine how he might feel in this moment if he had been in the other person’s place.
  • Can imagine what response might be appropriate or comforting in that particular situation

With consistent scaffolding from teachers, young children can begin to internalize these behaviours and this makes them more independent. This new found independence then lays foundation of empathy. It should be remembers that the young students need continued guidance and opportunities for practicing empathy and care as they grow and their cognitive and social skills become more progressive and pronounced.

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