Do you know how I feel? The ability to identify with other people's emotions can elude children who struggle to process verbal and non-verbal cues. How can parents and teachers coach kids to develop empathy, a key to successful relationships at every stage of life? We asked Lauren Zimet, a leading speech pathologist who works with children on the spectrum as well as individuals who don't have a formal diagnosis but misinterpret social cues.
"I'm a big believer in setting children up for success. Before going in to a new or different situation, parents can role play with children, and model the expected and desired behaviors. Behavior is communication, and we can empower our children with tools to be effective communicators early on."
Where should I start?
"Take 10 slow deep breaths periodically throughout the day to relax your mind and body, and reduce anxiety. Regular practice of breathing techniques builds immunity and improves nervous system functioning and emotional regulation -- in children and adults."
What are some techniques that help parents teach empathy?
Here are 10 activities that families can easily do at home or in their daily routine:
- Draw "Feeling Faces" together and create a special family feeling poster to frame and hang up as a visual reminder.
- Search magazines together for pictures of different feeling faces and make a collage. Then hypothesize why someone may feel a certain way.
- Make photo books with children, and label the photos with emotions so your child can flip through and identify how his friends and family members are feeling in each situation.
- Play board games that are designed to help children learn about empathy in ways that are fun for the whole family. I like Guess How I Feel? from Fun and Function. I've played it with girls and boys of different ages, and the groups had meaningful reflections on the situation cards, guessing why a person may have a certain expression or response.
- Encourage your child to see things from another person's perspective. "You're really good at soccer. How do you think the new player feels, sitting out, watching the team play? What can you do?" "How do you think your sister felt when she didn't get the singing part in the play?" "How do you think this person feels by looking at her face?"
- Help your child recognize that people have different interests and preferences. See if your child can list the favorite ice cream flavors of family members or friends. Or ask what different people do for fun: Who plays baseball? Who builds with Legos? Who plays cards? Who plays video games? This sounds simple, but even older children can benefit from a habit of reminding themselves of their friends' likes and dislikes before they get together. Have a discussion prior to a sleepover or play date: "Let's discuss what you and Michael may like to do when he comes over this weekend." Taking time to discuss an event in advance shows your child that you care, and you are considering another person's feelings and needs in the plan.
- While reading stories to children, stop and ask children to identify the characters' feelings in the story. Discuss how the characters' behaviors reveal their feelings.
- Do simple role-playing such as show me how your body and face would look if someone yelled at you, or knocked down your Lego building. Or what if you found a puppy on the playground, or received a surprise visit from Grandma and Grandpa
- Help children recognize that people may have different feelings about the same thing: "Cole likes to climb high on the jungle gym, but Wyatt doesn't."
- Help children recognize that their feelings about a situation may change. "Jesse, you are feeling sad now and want to sit by yourself, but later you may feel differently and may want to join the group at circle time."
How can educators reinforce empathy in the classroom?
Teachers can have a tremendous impact every day, especially with young students who look up to them. In addition to modeling and facilitating empathy in the classroom, teachers can establish foundational skills in talking about feelings. Preschoolers and Elementary school children who are able to identify a wide range of facial expressions and non-verbal body language have a head start on the empathy characteristic. In our Healthy Foundations curriculum, young students identify different feeling faces (drawings, pictures, and photographs), make their own feeling faces, share feelings with family members and friends, and then guess or infer why a person may look and feel that way.