Developing Empathy in Young Children

Friday, May 28, 2010


So in the child, besides the vital impulse to create himself, and to become perfect, there must yet another purpose, a duty to fulfill in harmony, something he has to do in the service of a united whole. ~ Montessori, The Absorbent Mind, pg 57.

Empathy is considered by many experts to be one of the greater measures of intelligence.  Personally, I think empathy is one of the most important personality traits to be encouraged and fostered in a child's development. 

Emotional Intelligence is considered "The New Smart". 
In this article by the International Montessori Council, "children can have a high I.Q. score, but may be unable to socialize in a group comfortably, play with others, understand others needs or communicate in a way that shares their feelings. In practical terms, E.Q. is the ability to read between the lines, to size up situations, to be intuitive. Author Daniel Goleman in his book "Emotional Intelligence" defined it as the self-control to rein in emotional impulses, the ability to read another's innermost feelings and to handle relationships smoothly. Goleman concludes that in every field, emotional intelligence matters twice as much as cognitive abilities like I.Q. or technical expertise. Emotionally intelligent people are good arbitrators, successful dealmakers, leaders, team players and employ better decision-making strategies using both their emotions and logic. They also have healthier relationships because of their ability to read emotions and respond appropriately. In a society obsessed with grades, standardized tests, and assessment charts, emotional intelligence cannot and should not be measured by conventional methods. E.Q. is evident in a child who has self-confidence, a high self esteem, displays kindness and empathy towards others and is other's centered. 'This is a child willing to help a friend in need, and a child who is respectful towards others' needs,' explains Linville, whose Montessori school embraces academics with life lessons."

Empathy, as outlined in Cultivating Pro-Social Behavior by Julie McDaniel, "is 'shared emotional responses which the child experiences on perceiving another's emotional reaction' (Feshbach, 1976). Feshbach's model encompasses both cognitive and affective facets as it contains three components, two cognitive and one affective. The first, at the most primitive level, is the ability to discriminate and label affective states of others. The second, reflecting a more advanced cognitive level, is the ability to assume the perspective and role of another person. The third component, affective, is emotional responsiveness: 'The observing child must be able to experience the negative or positive emotion that is being witnessed in order to be able to share that emotion' (Feshbach, 1976)."

Simply put, empathy is the ability to imagine yourself in someone else's shoes.  To feel for them, and to feel with them.  To share in someone else's feelings.  A recent study found that today's college students lack empathy.  To be more specific, this study was a follow-up to a study completed in 1979.  "Today's college students scored 40 percent lower on a measure of empathy than their elders did."

According to the study, "compared with college students of the late 1970s, current students are less likely to agree with statements such as 'I sometimes try to understand my friends better by imagining how things look from their perspective,' and "I often have tender, concerned feelings for people less fortunate than me.'
'Many people see the current group of college students - sometimes called 'Generation Me' - as one of the most self-centered, narcissistic, competitive, confident and individualistic in recent history,' said Konrath, who is also affiliated with the University of Rochester Department of Psychiatry. Konrath's colleague graduate student Edward O'Brien added, "It's not surprising that this growing emphasis on the self is accompanied by a corresponding devaluation of others."

This means that working to instill empathy in today's children is not just important, it is essential.

How to Teach Empathy
Montessori education teaches empathy through many different avenues.  First, empathy is gently and habitually modeled by the teacher or parent to the students, and by the teacher or parent to his/her peers, friends, and spouse.  The child observes this empathy, and absorbs it into their own behaviors.  Empathy demonstrated consistently by the teacher or parent in the classroom or the home defines the culture of the room, the way everyone "just is" towards one another, the way one is expected to treat others.

Secondly, lessons in manners, grace, and courtesy come in handy when instilling empathy in a child.
According to the NAMC (North American Montessori Center), "There is a natural need in every human being to find one’s place in the cosmos by finding fulfillment both inside and outside oneself. Montessori believed that it is the duty of every person to work toward and be part of something great which not only serves individual interests but those of all humanity. To understand this great relationship, children must be nurtured in the ways of grace, courtesy and service in order for it to flourish and grow throughout their lives.  Toddlers are very empathetic. They become concerned when hearing a baby cry and are quick to offer help and sympathy if someone is hurt or seems sad. They have a natural propensity to serve others. They are able to identify these emotions within themselves and are able to show an awareness of and compassion for others through this empathy."   
 The NAMC provides this list of exercises for Infants and Toddlers to assist in fostering empathy, grace, and courtesy.


"Early lessons of grace and courtesy develop positive interpersonal skills that will serve children throughout their lives. Demonstrations of Practical Life activities involving Grace and Courtesy, as well as modeling this behavior, are designed to nurture a child’s natural qualities of Grace and Courtesy, and his inherent desire to contribute to the peaceful order of his environment. These lessons include, but are not limited to:

greeting someone
introducing oneself
shaking hands
receiving visitors
apologizing/excusing oneself
watching and observing others
waiting
taking turns
interrupting/asking for help
using a quiet voice
speaking in a polite tone
saying please and thank you
blowing one’s nose
coughing and sneezing
washing one’s hands
inviting and refusing a partner or playmate
respecting others and their space
walking around people and objects
sitting on and putting away a chair
walking in line
offering food
caring for works, books, and the environment
rolling a rug
carrying work or objects
being silent
being kind
making friends

These lessons are most often presented in the Practical Life curriculum, but as NAMC points out, "many of these lessons are not “shelf works”. Some are demonstrations, while others are simply behavior absorbed through the child’s careful observation of her world. Positive models of grace and courtesy provide the example and environment for the development of peaceful young citizens."

It is so rewarding when I get to see empathy in my own children.  Yesterday when we were at the beach, my son found a butterfly floating in the waves.  He scooped it up, and I held it in my hands so we could examine it.  I could see right away that it was no longer alive.  Its wings were shredded on the ends.  My son wasn't so sure- he thought that it might just need to rest.  He laid it out on the towel to dry off, and proceeded to provide it with everything he or other family members like when we don't feel well, which included a book to read (a small business card he found and folded into half), a cup of tea (our cup for scooping sand), and a snack (a little piece of seaweed).  Of course, eventually the reality set in that the butterfly wasn't on the mend, but I really enjoyed seeing my little boy play out his empathetic role, which in turn modeled it for his younger siblings.

2 comments:

Taryn said...

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SimplyMontessori said...

Thank you for your kind words, Taryn!!! So glad you visited here!!! ♥

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