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Developing empathy in preschoolers: Here's what to know

Empathy is the foundation of all human interaction.
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Empathy, or the ability to understand and respect another person’s perspective, is the foundation of all human interaction. As your preschooler grows, she is beginning to recognize what others are feeling, and you can help teach your child about empathy and its importance even at this young age. Observation is a key feature of empathy, and children in preschool are beginning to read the gestures, facial expressions, and actions of others to figure out what they are feeling. You can build your child’s observation skills by pointing out when you see someone behaving kindly, or poorly, as this will help show her how actions are related to empathy.

Ask your child about the feelings of others. Director of the Rutgers Social and Emotional Laboratory Dr. Maurice Elias says that it is especially important when classmates, friends, and siblings are upset to ask your child what the other is feeling, and what caused them to feel this way. At this age, your child may not know the answer, so try not to require too many guesses, and don’t be surprised if she says, “I don’t know.” You can try telling your child what is happening, which will help her learn what perspective to take next time she sees similar things occurring.

Use picture books, videos, and photographs to develop your child’s empathy. Ask your child to point out what the people or animals in the pictures or drawings are feeling and talk to her about the importance of seeing the world through the lenses of others. How Are You Peeling?, a book with illustrations of foods expressing feelings, is a good resource to teach your child about the emotions of others. Head of School at New City School in St. Louis, Missouri, Tom Hoerr recommends watching a television show with your child for two to three minutes without sound to see what you and your child can tell about how people are feeling by how they look and what they do, rather than what they say. You can also try taking photos of your child when she applies her empathy in a positive way; for example, when she helps you around the house or when she shares her toys with her sibling. You can then print out the image and post it on your refrigerator as a visual example of what good empathetic behavior looks like.

Teach your child about the Golden Rule. Children this age may not yet fully realize how their actions affect others, and this can cause them to act out or hit others when there is a conflict. Since preschoolers are still developing their sense of empathy, they aren’t yet models of selfless behavior, so it’s good to teach your child ways that she can apply the Golden Rule in her daily interactions. You can do this by talking with your child about the need to think of how her actions affect the feelings of others, and by providing her with examples of how to be more empathetic. If your child hurts another person’s feelings or strikes someone else for any reason, you can use this as a teachable moment. Talk to her and explain that you will not tolerate her hurting others and ask her questions like, “I know you are mad at your friend, but how would you feel if she stole your toy?” or, “It hurt your sister when you hit her; how would you feel if someone hit you?” Education consultant and blogger Jennifer Miller adds that you may also want to teach your child how to react and deal with strong angry emotions instead of lashing out with her words and hands. If your child needs to vocalize her anger, ask her to roar like a lion or go to a safe place to cool down. Miller says that it’s good to practice these reactions so that your child is better prepared to deal with certain situations.

Parent Toolkit resources were developed by NBC News Learn with the help of subject-matter experts, including Maurice Elias, Director, Rutgers Social-Emotional and Character Development Lab; Thomas Hoerr, Emeritus Head of School, New City School; Michele Borba, Author and Educational Psychologist; and Jennifer Miller, Author, Confident Parents, Confident Kids.