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How to develop empathy in a child

20 May, 2021

Empathy is developed in the family, then at school, and constant communication and adjustment between the two is necessary for actions to be congruent.

How to develop empathy

One of the elements that lies at the very heart of education and ensures a coherent and successful learning process is the idea of empathy. Empathy is the ability to truly show compassion, to understand another person's experience and to be able to put yourself in someone else's shoes. The ability to show empathy is a life skill that can be taught at any age, with beneficial results. Empathetic children are less likely to bully others, and research shows that leaders who listen and try to understand their employees' emotions are more successful. Here's how to foster empathy in children in 9 simple steps.


Empathy is often confused with sympathy. According to Dr. Brene Brown, "empathy fuels connection, sympathy causes disconnection" .Sympathy is literally "feeling with" - compassion for another person. In contrast, empathy is literally "feeling in" - the ability to project one's personality into another person and fully understand them.

Children who lack empathy can face a range of social challenges, such as difficulty making friends, working with others and the ability to make decisions. Most importantly, children and young adults who lack empathy do not realise that their own behaviour can have a negative impact on others. Empathy is a key ingredient in positive friendships and relationships. It reduces conflict and misunderstanding and, in the long run, facilitates success in life. Empathetic children tend to be more confident and less aggressive, are more popular and generally seem happier. 

Like any skill, empathy can be learned and developed

To do this, it is essential for parents and teachers to recognise that lack of empathy is a skill deficit and not a behavioural problem. In the words of Ross Greene, "Kids do well if they can". There are many ways to teach, highlight and practice empathy skills so that these skills are learned over time. It is important to know that some children will pick up more and faster than others.  The important thing is to work slowly and keep track of progress. There are some strategies that can be integrated into working with young children, in kindergarten or even in school, to develop empathy in children and create a positive learning community for all.

How do we develop empathy in children in everyday classroom work?

Show empathy in turn 

Whenever you want to teach a skill to a child, it is important to mirror it first.  This way, the child understands what empathy looks, sounds and feels like. In addition, it is easier to teach a skill that you have already assimilated. It's important to show empathy even at times when we're upset or your child has behaved in a way we don't like.  This reinforces the idea that empathy can and should be used even when we feel disappointed, hurt or angry. The more empathy children receive, the more likely they are to offer it to others. One of the ways to show empathy is through play, children's language of learning. Dolls, stuffed animals and puppets can 'talk' to children and provide empathetic responses. Often our children will learn even more from this kind of play than from our 'real' interactions with them! In the eyes of children, toys have more credibility than adults.  

Emotions - a solid basis for building empathy in children 

Talk about emotions 

Talking about feelings should be a normal and present thing in the classroom.  Model behaviours using affirmations and learn about different emotions as they arise. Never punish a child for feeling sad or upset. Make it clear that all emotions are welcome and learn to manage them in a healthy way through discussion and reflection. 

Create a vocabulary board for emotions 

Improve each student's emotional vocabulary by setting up a board in the classroom with all the words that show different emotions. Students should recognize that there are many shades for each emotion, from irritated to annoyed, from melancholy to angry or sad. Make these words a routine so that students learn to use them effectively. 

Identify emotions in photos 

Take your own photos in class or look in magazines or on the internet for pictures that are representative. Ask the children to look for pictures of people with different emotions. Encourage them to identify how each person might feel or think. This is a fun activity that can be repeated constantly. 

Help in the community or globally

Give children the opportunity to interact with people from different backgrounds, of different ages and circumstances, facilitating empathy for others. You may choose to visit a home for the elderly, hold a charity fair with items created by children and donate the funds to a cause, invite a representative of an NGO to a lesson. Also encourage random acts of kindness. Kindness means being thoughtful without expecting anything in return. Teaching and encouraging these actions will help children begin to think about the feelings of others. You can create a kindness jar in the classroom. When a child witnesses or does an act of kindness, have them write it on a note and put it in the jar. At the end of the month, read all the deeds with the children and even award one of them, drawn at random. 

Teach children to "put themselves in someone else's shoes"

Imagine a few situations and ask pupils to think about how they would feel in that situation. Then ask them how they think someone else would feel in the same circumstances. Maybe a colleague, maybe a family member. This is a critical component of empathy because how we feel might not be similar to how someone else might feel. It's a skill that can sometimes take a lot of practice and discussion with others. 

Initiate role plays in social scenarios 

Discuss a variety of social situations and ask students to role-play what they might do. For example, "Imagine you see someone falling in the hallway. What would you do?" This social situation encourages students to think about how someone else might feel, as well as how they should respond.  

Delegate responsibility to students 

Use everyone's strengths and skills to give students some responsibility in the classroom. If a child is good with technology, ask them to help with printables or video lessons. If another child loves nature, ask them to water plants regularly. Responsibilities are a great way to get each student to care and think beyond themselves.

Build confidence 

Sometimes children and young adults who lack empathy seem overconfident because they don't seem to care how others feel. Most of the time, however, this is only on a superficial level. Such pupils may actually struggle with feelings of rejection from their peers, which leads to low self-confidence. Be sure to spend time helping each child share their strengths, passions and dreams. When children feel better, they usually do better too. Use these confidence-building activities to create a head start. 

Teach students to disagree, but in a respectful way  

One stage of building empathy in children is recognising that others may think differently from you. Help students learn the skills to accept and respect others' opinions when they disagree. Encourage students to use phrases like "I understand your opinion" and "I have a different point of view, but I understand yours too".

Use stories and daily lessons  

Reading stories can be a perfect time to initiate discussions about emotions and empathy. You can even use the texts in the curriculum and, at the end of the lesson, ask the children how they think a particular character felt, how they would feel if something similar happened to them or what they would do in such a situation.  

Most importantly, however, beyond all this, it is also important that we as teachers and parents practice and develop empathy.

It is also essential not to teach empathy simply as another lesson, but to guide children, to ask them questions that challenge them to put themselves in the shoes of others and reflect. The ability to understand the emotions of others and respond with kindness is a life skill, and by developing as many activities as possible in children we lay the foundation for a better world. 

Empathy, like all other life skills, is built first in the family, then at school, and constant communication and adjustment between the two is necessary so that actions are congruent. We encourage you to support ongoing communication with parents, through the direct messaging feature, but also through other smart features available in the Kinderpedia app.  

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