Some say kindness is a superpower, but did you know that empathy can be a superpower, too? Empathy is “putting yourself in the shoes of others” and using what you know about a person or situation to understand how someone feels. This cognitive process is considered intrinsic; however, studies show that empathy can be cultivated with the appropriate attention and commitment.

Why Teach Empathy?

Developing empathy helps children in all aspects of life. As young children mature, they continue to develop their emotional responses and learn how to translate feelings into actions. According to the Making Caring Common Project, when we teach children about empathy and show them how to act on it, there’s an increase in school engagement, academic achievement, communication skills and positive relationships. There is also a decrease in bullying and aggressive behaviors.

The question should really be: Why not teach empathy? By modeling and encouraging empathy, educators and adults can promote kindness and compassion. Students can learn how to engage in positive peer-to-peer interactions and respond appropriately to difficult situations. They can become role models, community leaders and responsible members of society.

Day-to-Day Practices

Educators and adults can play an important role in a child’s understanding and development of empathy. Through various exercises and activities, students can learn what empathy is and how to apply empathy to support and understand others. For example, children can learn to be empathetic through active listening activities, role playing opportunities and metacognitive exercises that incorporate self-reflection and positive mindsets.

The Power of Literature

Since empathy can’t be explicitly taught, educators and adults can use literature to support the development of this skill. By modeling empathy and providing emotional coaching during shared reading and read aloud activities, they can help children examine new
perspectives, explore diverse points of view, analyze character feelings, and experience unfamiliar issues and emotions. Children can put themselves in the shoes of beloved characters and look at situations through different character lenses. They can observe how characters adapt to difficult situations and can apply this knowledge to real-life problems beyond the text. These tasks involve higher-level thinking skills, and children are challenged to use their background knowledge and clues from the text to think critically and make
inferences about characters. The power of literature allows children to access worlds and issues outside of their own lives.

It’s Never Too Early to Start

With a toolbox of strategies at our fingertips, we can help children learn about empathy and turn their emotional responses into positive actions. We can teach young children how empathy can impact the world around them and show them how to use this incredible
superpower to help others. Just think how different our lives would be if everyone’s actions were rooted in kindness, compassion and empathy. By instilling empathy in children, we can truly make a difference. It’s never too early to start.

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Kristin Riley is a Reading Specialist committed to supporting and promoting literacy development.  A graduate of Medaille College (2008), Kristin has a MSEd in Literacy, Birth-6, and is certified in Literacy, Elementary, and Special Education.  She is a member of the International Literacy Association (ILA) and has been involved with the Niagara Frontier Reading Association (NFRC), for the past ten years.  In addition, Kristin is an educational blogger and developer of digital resources. Read more..