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Empathy is an important social skill that can be encouraged in 3–5-year-olds.

What is empathy?

Empathy could be described as the ability to tune into, and understand, another person’s feelings and thoughts. To practise empathy requires setting aside our own opinions, beliefs and judgements, and being open to accepting other people just as they are.

We use empathy when we acknowledge that someone else’s perspectives are as important as our own. And their views and beliefs, like our own, will have been formed through their lived experiences.

Children’s emotional development is built into the architecture of their brains (PDF 324KB) | Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University (external link)

This working paper from the Centre for the Developing Child at Harvard University, reminds us how the emotional health of young children is closely connected with the social and emotional characteristics of the environments in which they live. This includes not only from their parents, but the wider whānau and community too.

Empathy – genetic or encouraged?

Is empathy something we are born with, or is it a learned skill? This question seems similar to the nature versus nurture discussion. How much of our human development is about our genes, and how much is about the environment our genes grow up in?

Reimaging empathy: The transformative nature of empathy | TEDx Talks (YouTube)(external link)

Paul Parkin's TEDx Talk suggests we are born with mirror neurons that programme us to care about the experiences of the people around us. When that caring approach is supported and encouraged, children are well on their way to developing empathic behaviours. Parkin suggests that the opposite is also true. If a child has no encouragement to consider how others might think or feel, their capacity to connect with others is weakened, often leading to isolation and loneliness.

Children learn by copying

There are many ways to help young children learn to develop the skill of empathy, and it starts with seeing and hearing empathetic behaviours practised around them. They can also become aware of others’ feelings through books and stories.

Children also learn about empathy by experiencing it. Adults who treat tamariki with empathy are going a long way to helping their children build empathy themselves. Empathy develops when an adult acknowledges what’s going on for the tamaiti, helps them to feel soothed, and gives them the language to describe their feelings. It doesn’t necessarily mean agreeing with the child, but it does show the child that the adult can see their perspective.

Developmental stages

Certainly there are developmental periods when a young child is more focused on themselves and getting their own needs met before anyone else. However, this is just a stage in their development. With the right kind of modelling around them they will progress from that egocentric stage and learn to see other people’s feelings as being important too.

Fostering empathy

Help young children to start developing empathy by increasing their understanding about:

  • Roles of tuākana and tēina
    • Encourage caring for and supporting younger siblings.
    • Young children are often drawn to little babies, so guide and support older siblings to help with a new pēpi.
  • Appropriate care of animals, especially whānau pets
    • Even very small children can help to care for a pet.
    • Encourage them to help with feeding and help them learn how to be gentle and kind to animals.
  • The differing needs of other living creatures – for example, insects and plants
    • If they’ve collected some insects, it’s important to help keep them alive with whatever they need.
    • Looking after plants, either in the garden or in a flower pot, is also a way to instil care for other living things.
  • How their behaviour might impact on others
    • Pretend play can be a very simple way to practise caring for others and saying ‘sorry’.
    • Role models who practise empathy are great teachers.
    • Adults who talk with children about what’s going on for them, or other people around them, can show them first-hand what it feels like when someone cares about you and how you can do that for others, too.

Caring for other living things

How caring for living things helps kids build empathy | PBS parents(external link)

In this article, Deborah Farmer Kris writes that empathy ‘muscles’ are being strengthened when kids learn that everything has needs, that their needs may not be the same as others, and that they are able to help meet the needs of other living creatures.

Caring for plants and animals fosters empathy | Learning for Justice(external link)

Dr Ruth Wilson’s article confirms once more the value for children in developing empathy and caring. It explains that even young babies are capable of feeling empathy for others. Empathy and caring need to be nurtured through direct involvement in meaningful activities.

We often worry about children’s exposure to bullying, violence and aggression, and Dr Wilson’s article suggests this is a way to counterbalance these negative effects through caring for living things.

Other resources

Developing imagination | Tākai

Learning through pretend play | Tākai

The value of books and stories | Tākai

Six steps for developing empathy in social situations | IQ Matrix(external link)

SPCA Targeted Interventions(external link)