Austin Public Schools: How to raise empathic children

Published 8:11 am Sunday, April 30, 2017

By Amy Baskin, APS Director of Communications and Community Education

Executive function and self-regulation skills are the mental processes that enable us to plan, focus attention, remember instructions, and juggle multiple tasks successfully. Children are not born with these skills, but they are born with the potential to develop them. Research shows that social skills and emotional development are a very important part of school readiness and academic success.

One area of development is empathy. Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another person. Children develop empathy through modeled behavior that shows them that other people’s feelings are different from theirs. At around 2 years old, children first start recognizing another’s feelings and relating them to their own. In the process, they acquire an important set of emotional skills that lay the foundation for empathetic behavior.

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Research suggests there are great ways to build this amazing power in your children. Here are some tips for fostering empathy with the young children you spend time with. This information comes from 

Read, read, read!

While all types of reading benefit children, research suggests that reading fiction with kids can improve their ability to understand thoughts and feelings from another’s perspective. When reading together, try asking your toddler, “How do you think the character feels?” and “How do the other people in the story feel when the character does that?”

Learn how to share.

When children are playing together, either with siblings or friends, ask your child to pick out toys that another child would like. Show your child how to take turns: “It’s Maria’s turn to play with the teddy, and then it will be your turn.”

Identify and name feelings.

Go beyond the basic “happy” and “sad” and talk with your child about feelings of excitement, frustration, anger, fear and disappointment. Naming different emotions helps children recognize those feelings in themselves and others.

Find opportunities to discuss emotions.

Point out the different expressions of family members, children at the playground, or characters in books and ask your child what he/she thinks they are feeling. Take it a step further by asking them to make a face while imagining different feelings. Imitating an expression can help kids experience the associated emotion.

Explain the effects of your child’s actions.

Ask your child to think about how their actions affect others: “It made Tommy angry when you took his ball away. How would you feel if someone took the ball away from you?”

Talk about your feelings, too.

Express how you are feeling! Saying things like, “It makes me happy when you share your toys” or “I feel good when you help other people” gives them an example for how to express emotions, and lets them know that they happen to grown-ups too. Modeling empathetic behavior will help kids grow into thoughtful, caring, and empathetic adults.