By Ms. Kylie Dunn, Montessori Community School Counselor and Learning Support
Teachers and parents share the same responsibility of finding meaningful ways to encourage children to do their best. We want them to explore with enthusiasm, learn with resilience, and play with kindness. Children have to practice the ideals we hold for them, from their handwriting and math facts to qualities like patience and focus. Everything takes practice! Guiding children to master academic content comes with a curriculum and lesson plans, but teaching about empathy is more nuanced.
In Guidance class, the students are given the opportunity to refine their empathy skills. The Lower Elementary students participate in an exercise that challenges them to find two perspectives in the same illusion art pictures. They also read, “A Tale of Two Beasts, a book which has two parts; the first telling the story from the young girl’s perspective and the second telling the same story from the “little beast’s” perspective. It is a silly and fun way to recognize how all situations can be viewed differently by different people.
Research shows that using guilt and shame are not effective at garnering a sense of empathy in children. Instead, we must start by taking away the assumption that children are already empathetic and view it as a skill they need time to learn. With a few key strategies, any adult can be a supportive figure in a child’s journey to developing a strong sense of empathy.
One of the best ways to strengthen empathy is to practice perspective taking. Stepping outside of our own views and imagining what another person is feeling is a requirement in empathy. A great way to do this at home is to point out characters in books and movies and discuss what they might be feeling. Facial expressions, body language, emotions, and context are all important factors.
Children are very aware of the empathy and perspective taking skills you exhibit towards them and others around you. Being a model in empathy helps children feel safe and willing to move into an empathetic space themselves. How do you empathize when your child is feeling scared or nervous? What perspective-taking comments do you make about the experience of other family members, neighbors or strangers? How do you react when you make a mistake and need to apologize?
To have empathy requires vulnerability. This is what makes it so difficult at times for children (and adults!) to find an empathetic response in a distressing situation. The more we can help our children practice perspective taking and feel safe in this vulnerable place, the more they will be able to be a leader in empathy.