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Teaching Empathy

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Some of you have asked where I get the topics I discuss in the newsletters. From all different places, is usually my response… (nice and vague). Today’s topic comes from a discussion I had the other day with a teacher when we were observing some of the children in her classroom. The topic of empathy was salient in our conversation. How do children develop empathy? From where does it come? Can it definitely be taught, or is it innate in certain people?

We all know people, children and adults, who have an outstanding ability to be empathetic, that is, to truly understand the feelings and experiences of another. (Not to be confused with sympathetic, which is more superficial in nature.) And then we all know people, children and adults alike, who have very little ability to do this, almost as if it is a foreign language. What creates this, this difference in human behavior? A very difficult question with no easy answer.

Can infants and very young children, whose identity is based on a marked egocentricism, show signs of empathic behavior towards others? Is this where it begins, or must we wait until later childhood to truly see signs of this kind of awareness and understanding of others? When can this behavior be “taught”, if it can truly be taught at all?

To answer these questions, I will begin by saying that I have seen infants as young as a few months showing signs of empathy. In our very own infant room here at Peacock, I have observed a little baby, when one of his peers was crying about something that upset her, he stroked her foot and looked at her face. She then quieted her crying. It was amazing. It was almost as if the first infant was saying, yes, I know what it is like to be hungry. You will be OK. The lady will feed you. Without words, only gestures, the expression of understanding went from one baby to another.  This is just one example. Was this baby taught to do this? Most probably not. Does this baby come from a family where perhaps empathy is commonplace, a regular behavior around the dinner table? Not necessarily, but there is good likelihood that this is the case. Children learn things that they observe. We can tell a child to use good manners, and to hold the knife and fork in the correct way, and to speak with grammatical correctness, but if we, as adults, do not ascribe to these principles or rules of behavior, then it becomes a challenge for the child to do what we are asking them to.

So, this brings me back to my first question, is empathy a learned behavior? Yes and no. I would say, for the most part, yes, but in some cases, no. I have worked with some children who have been diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, or who are on the Autistic spectrum. These children have great challenges in attempting to understand others, and there is a distinct disconnect when it comes to observing physical and verbal cues that would lead them to understand another human being.

For it is these cues that illicit the development of empathy. I often ask children to look at the faces of their peers and to ask themselves what it is the other might be feeling based on what they see? To develop empathy, one must not only develop ones ability to observe closely, but one must also be able to understand ones own feelings and make connections. One must know sadness or joy or anger or frustration to understand those feelings of another. Some people say that this level of understanding is way too advanced for a young child, that their world is wrapped around their own selves, and to see beyond is not developmentally appropriate. I disagree. Studies of young children, both my own, and many published ones out there, have shown over and over, that children as young as infants, like I described earlier, are able to show compassion and understanding of others, particularly their peers, but often also of a very close caregiver or of a parent. I have observed families and classrooms where the climate is one of caring and understanding of everyone in this community of individuals. The children in these families and in these classrooms are, for the most part, more aware and understanding of and more connected to each other, than children who are surrounded by a marked disconnect and/or an independence among the members of their particular group. I have heard a parent say to her child, “Pay attention to your little brother. Make sure he is OK.” I have heard a teacher say at lunch time, “Look at the face of this child. What do you think she is feeling? What can we say to show we understand and help her?” These are concrete ways to teach empathy, to create this climate of caring that is based on love and understanding or respect of each other. Certainly there are children who are born with something innate in them, the Ghandis or the Buddhas or the Martin Luther Kings of the world, people who understand empathy in their very being, but for most of us, I believe it is a learned behavior that is cultivated in groups and among others. I do have a bias that tells me that the more we as families and institutions can cultivate empathy, the more peaceful and caring of a society we can thus create for ourselves, for all of us…

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So, on that note, what has transpired in our classrooms at Peacock this week?
In our Infant Room teachers and children are preparing for the imminent departure of two of our infants to our Waddler room, next week being the last “official” week that they will be babies, according to WA state guidelines. (But, as one almost kindergarten child said to me the other day, “My mother said I will always be her baby.”) So, as the children grow, as they do, in their inherent nature, we sit back and watch, and note how love and compassion are our guides as they do this, this growing up, this moving on, this venturing into the world outside of infanthood…

In our Toddler Room, I got the fortune of observing the most beautiful scene yesterday.  Juliette had picked up and started to play Kaili’s guitar, and she and the other teachers sat down on the expansive grass as the toddlers were dancing around them, picking flowers, and happily playing together in the warm sun. The toddlers have been exposed to so much diverse kinds of music this year, and it shows in their love of all things musical, in their desires to dance and move their bodies to all different kinds of music and rhythms…

In our Green Room, a highlight of the week was a walk the children did around town looking for Waldo. Starting at Eagle Harbor Books and then scattered throughout town were pictures of Waldo that our kids thoroughly enjoying hunting for from store to store. Later in the play yard, Maia hung more pictures of Waldo that the children never tired of looking for. Also in the Green Room this week the children made play dough and butterfly paintings. They painted rocks and shells. They sank and floated all kinds objects in the water table,  understanding the concept of weight and weightlessness.  They made golden suns out of paper plates, and they made their names out of pom poms.

In our Blue Room, the children created mosaic suns out of scrap paper. In this enjoyable project, the children learned about using scrap paper, and not needing to always get new paper, and they got to envision their own sun, and in an abstract way, create one using this vision in their heads. Then, they got to work with the letter S, the letter of the month, as they got to practice writing this letter and following through with the curves, the number 8. Then the children talked about word endings and  the sounds of “UN” and “AT” and they put letters in front of them to make new words. An elaborate discussion ensued about how words are built. Further discussions resulted relating to the sun, and how it moves across the sky during the day, and how it makes light and shadows, and how blocking the light affects ones shadow. Water was another theme of the week, and the children made underwater Lego cities, as they did many water activities, including sponge races, estimating and measuring how much water could go in their buckets. In show and tell this week, the children focused on the telling part of show and tell, as they told great stories of one kind and another. The resulting questions from the children were very thoughtful, and it was interesting to note that when the children did more telling, rather than showing, the depth of questioning and understanding of their classmates was much more pronounced.

Children are, we all are, needing this—this depth of understanding of one another, this empathy in our lives…
 

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