Do you have empathy? Do you understand how other people think and feel? Of course you do. Each one of us is wired to connect with others. Empathy is part of what makes us fully human.
The thing is, empathy is in serious decline. We spend so much time ‘mending’ children with various issues that we don’t seem to have the time to build strong children in the first place. In other words, ‘we leave the education of children’s hearts to chance.’
Empathy is a skill. It is the ability to recognise and respond to the feelings of other people. It is not a skill that is evenly distributed. It grows in empathetic conditions, and is depleted in aggressive or harsh environments. Empathy is essential because it holds together our personal relationships and, as a result, our communities. If we don’t cultivate it, it won’t grow. It’s as simple as that.
Unfortunately, the development of empathy is too often placed in the ‘soft skills’ section of education, typically viewed as low priority, with academic success regarded as top priority. In schools, children learn content and facts. Alongside this, higher order thinking skills are encouraged and yet the higher order capacities for feeling are largely ignored. As a result, this misjudgement of priorities means that children miss out on the vital skills that go hand in hand with empathy.
When we develop empathy in the Early Years and beyond, we are doing more than building a strong child. We are building a nation of strong children. Empathy means that we ‘get’ other people, and other cultures. It means that we understand how other people feel, think and act. We are therefore more likely to accept the beliefs and views of people whose lives are different to our own.
An empathetic child also ‘gets’ who they are due to emotional regulation skills that are developed as part of empathy. The trials and tribulations of life become more manageable as a consequence.
How then do we ‘grow’ empathy in our settings? We connect. We build relationships with the children and their families. We learn about the children’s loves and fears, passions and aversions. We play with the children. We laugh, chat, and visibly enjoy our time together. We share their joy, and we celebrate their successes.
We develop the children’s emotional intelligence by accepting their loud, messy feelings, and allowing them to move through them to the peace on the other side. We label all of their feelings providing them with rich vocabulary to express the various nuances of feeling.
We understand how vulnerable children feel. The power of the words, ‘Your face looks sad, would you like a hug?’ is immeasurable. I happened to be outside a preschool tucked away in a village hall recently, and heard a child crying inside. The crying went on for a minute or so, and then an adult said, ‘Right, that needs to stop now.’ The urge to go in and work with that adult was so acute that I had to sit on my hands.
A simple ‘You’re crying and I think that means you’re feeling sad. Can I help?’ changes a child’s brain activity. It moves the child from anxious and unrecognised to calm and acknowledged. Very young children don’t yet have the tools to cope with overwhelming feelings. Cortisol, the stress hormone, floods their system, and takes away their ability to think through the feeling.
Our job is to provide children with warm and loving support, so that they know a) what they are feeling and b) what to do with the feeling. This is the beginning of self-regulation, a two-decade journey for most of us. Once the roots of self-regulation are in place, this becomes fertile ground for growing empathy.
Planting empathy right in the centre of our practice is a smart move. Higher order capacities for feeling allow children to grow in self-awareness alongside an understanding of everyone around them. In other words, ‘growing’ empathetic children promotes peace.
It is as simple as that.
 Garnett H. 2017. Developing Empathy in the Early Years: a handbook for Practitioners. Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
About the author
Helen Garnett is a mother of 4, and a committed and experienced Early Years consultant. She co-founded a pre-school in 2005 and cares passionately about young children and connection. As a result, she has written a book, ‘Developing Empathy in Preschool Children: a handbook for Practitioners’, out in October 2017. She has also co-written an Early Years curriculum and assessment tool, at present being implemented in India. Helen is also on the Think Equal team, a global initiative led by Leslee Udwin, developing empathy in pre-schools and schools across the world.