Teaching Empathy to Pre School Children

The study of children, though less than 200 years old, has been a fascinating one for developmental psychologists. This is because of the many psychological changes that occur in this stage of life, extending towards the onset of adolescence.

Researchers believe that these psychological changes culminate in the optimum psychological and mental functioning of early adulthood (Miller, 2001).

A principal motivation for many psychological investigators working in this field has always been to determine how the resulting mental abilities of adulthood were arrived at during the preceding phases, especially during the first 12 years of life. This essay, therefore, concerns itself with trying to establish if empathy can be taught to pre-school age children.

Many theories have been advanced by developmental theorists in their attempt to explain the various stages of human development through life. However, many textbooks on educational psychology and developmental psychology use Jean Piaget’s theory of development as the starting point for discussing cognitive development, especially in children (Genovese, 2003).

This is justifiable since Piaget, more than anyone else, contributed immensely to our understanding of how children’s cognitive capabilities changes in predictable ways. Piaget was of the opinion that moral reasoning formed the fundamentals for ethical behavior. His theory posits that logic and morality develop through a process of constructive progression.

Having looked at the basics, it is only fair that attention is focused on looking at whether empathy can be taught to pre-school age children. According to Bavolek (2003), empathy is the ability of an individual to share his or her feelings and understand another individual’s thoughts, emotions, and feelings.

Empathy can represent itself in the form of compassionate or spiteful behavior, and therefore does not in any way imply kindness, sympathy, or empathetic concern. Heinz Kohut defined empathy as the capacity to think and feel your as you were in the inner life and thoughts of another person (Hummel, 2001).

Various developmental theories can be used to show that, indeed, empathy can be taught to pre-school children. An important milestone in the developmental process of children is the growing awareness of their own statuses, and the ability to distinguish and construe the emotions of others around them.

This is the starting point for the development of empathy, a self-awareness that comes when the child is approximately two years old (Loeber & Farrington, 2001). Children at this age begin to describe their actions as they go about performing them.

They become domineering with their toys for the first time, and can easily recognize a reflection of themselves in the mirror. The culmination of these capabilities at the age of two leads to the development of empathy – the ability to appreciate the emotions and sensitivity of others.

This newfound awareness of their own potential to act inspires young children to try to influence or affect the behavior and emotions of others around them. This shows that empathy skills can effectively be instilled in the lives of young children. What follows in the developmental stages of a young child is the urge to test the authority of other people around them, especially the parents (Loeber & Farrington, 2001).

Any use of threats and physical punishments by the parents in the hope of ‘instilling discipline’ on the child will work against the very idea of teaching empathy to them (Bavolek, 2006).

As they progress in age, children develop the capability to understand the perspective and point of view of people around them. This development is closely associated with the empathetic sharing of other people’s thoughts and emotions (Howe, Pit-ten, Ineke, Brown, & Hadwin, 2008).

At this time, parents can effectively teach empathy to young children by explaining to them the effects of their own behaviors towards others. Parents should encourage the pre-school child to discuss their feelings, attitudes, perceptions, and problems with them (Bavolek). This way, the pre-school children can be taught empathetic skills.

The moral development theory, as postulated by Kohlberg, rests on the assumption that humans are intrinsically communicative and capable of reason (Crain, 1985). The theory is also guided by the principle that moral reasoning forms the foundation for ethical behavior. He argues that people possess a valid desire to understand other people and the world around them.

This forms the basis for empathy. His theory consists of six stages of moral development, but of particular concern in relation to this paper is the first stage of the pre-conventional phase. This is the orientation stage of obedience and punishment.

This stage of moral reasoning is associated with young children. The orientation stage of obedience and punishment appears to emphasize more on the direct consequences to an individual as a result of their actions. Children within this stage conceive the idea that for one to be punished harshly, he or she must have done something terrible (Crain, 1985).

This kind of thinking depicts of egocentric thoughts, showing that the child empathetic capabilities have not fully developed (Duska & Whelan, 1975). According to Kohlberg, individuals in this stage lack the recognition that the points of view of others are actually different from their own.

The orientation stage of obedience and punishment mainly consists of children below the age of five. By the time a child is six years old, they are able to conceptualize that other individuals hold very different perspectives, thoughts, and emotions from their own.

It was the consideration of Kohlberg that a better approach to affecting moral behavior should concern itself with the stages of moral development. Kohlberg opined that the stages are important as they revolve around the way an individual organizes his or her own understanding of the virtues, rules, values, and norms, and incorporates them into a moral choice.

The objective of moral education is to encourage individuals to develop to the next level of moral reasoning. It, therefore, follows that this theory can effectively be used to teach empathy to pre-school children as each stage translates into a learning experience.

Each stage in Kohlberg’s theory of moral development comprises a succession of qualitative changes in the thought system of an individual. Within any stage of moral development, the thought system is organized around the limitations of that stage.

It, therefore, follows that these children will interact with the environment according to their own understanding of the surroundings. Nevertheless, there are times when this rule does not apply. For example, there is a possibility that a child may come into contact with information that may later their thought process, thereby also affecting the way in which they interact with the environment.

Howard and Barnett (1981) have argued that an equilibration process is needed in order to help such children to adjust to the new environment. Howard and Barnett (1981) further opine that the equilibration process may very well be applied as a method of teaching empathy to pre-school children.

This is because the equilibration process is thought to help children become sensitive, thus easily adapting to empathetic capabilities should they encounter them either at home or in school.

The moral development theory, as postulated by Kohlberg, argues that the lives of young children in this stage constantly revolve around the notion of being obedient to avoid punishment. Here, a parent can indeed utilize such a world view or thought system to teach empathy to them through parental induction effectively, and equally through avoidance of love abandonment and power assertion techniques (Hoffman, 1983).

The development of empathy takes place at a faster rate when parents share their behaviors of parenting with their children, especially in a case whereby the parents take time to cite the consequences that have befallen the actions of other individuals that their children can identify with.

Robert Selman’s theory of perspective-taking can also be used to show that empathy can be taught to pre-school age children. The perspective by Selman (1997) involves the capability to imagine what other individuals may be thinking and feeling (Adelbjarnardottirs & Selman, 1997).

Selman came up with a five-stage developmental model describing major transformations in children’s perspective-taking skills. Questions involving social dilemmas, and having divergent information and opinions about events were posed to children selected from pre-school through to adolescent-age teenagers.

The results of the interview reinforced Kohlberg’s theory of moral development in its assertion that an individual’s cognitive development is based on phases (Power, 2008).

Selman’s experiment revealed that pre-school children had a limited idea of what other individuals might be thinking or feeling, otherwise known as perspective (Adelbjarnardottirs & Selman, 1997). But as the child progresses, they gain knowledge that individuals can interpret the same thoughts or ideas differently.

Children can then comfortably ‘step in another individual’s shoes’ and mirror on how that individual might consider their own thoughts, values, feelings, and behavior (Stetson, Hurley, & Miller, 2003). Finally, the youngsters could simultaneously examine the relationships between the perspectives of two people.

Perspective-taking, otherwise called role-taking, is a vital constituent of empathy, an acquired sensitivity to the plight of other people. Empathy is a principal factor in developing core moral values and bringing them to life since it sets out the parameters of our relationships with others (Vezzutto, 2004).

Perspective-taking involves the cognitive capability of recognizing the feelings of other people through physical, verbal, and behavioral signals and inferring about how these people may be feeling through imagining or putting themselves in their shoes.

Selman (1997) opines that young children of pre-school age have a limited idea of what other individuals might be thinking or feeling. It is, therefore, possible for parents to infuse such an idea into the thought process of their children by way of asking them to imagine what it would be like if they were faced with a similar situation.

The theory reveals that pre-school children can effectively learn empathy if they exhibited limited thoughts of what other people might be feeling. This age-group, normally from 3-5 years, is normally able to differentiate their selves from other visible feelings (Vezzutto, 2004).

They thus lack the capability to discern the cause of other people’s feelings and perceptions. But this theoretical framework has aptly demonstrated that empathy is a skill that can be acquired through interaction with the environment. According to Bergin (2007), the concept of empathy can never mature on its own; rather, it must be acquired through the process of socialization.

Psychologist Lev Vygotsky came up with the social-cultural perspective, arguing that young children learn through their daily interactions with the environment. He proposed that the cognitive development of young children is improved when they work in an area he termed as Zone of Proximal Development.

For children to get to this state, children must be guided by an adult or other individuals with an experience that exceeds what the children can do by themselves (Barnett, King, Howard, & Dino, 1980).

The Zone of Proximal Development identifies the skills and capabilities that are in the process of developing. The zone defines the range of tasks that a child cannot yet perform without assistance. The child can, however, dutifully perform these tasks with the assistance of some other more experienced individual.

Vygotsky’s social, cultural perspective can be actively used to assist the child in internalizing the concepts involved in empathy by helping him or her to imagine the feelings of the other people as if they were his or her own (Vezzutto 2004). In order to help the children internalize empathetic concepts, parents are called upon to assist their children in the induction process.

The success of such an exercise shall, therefore, be largely dependent on parenting skills employed by the parents. The ability to assist a child in imagery construction is of great importance in this theory as such thought constructions will aptly assist the child in discerning the cause of other people’s feelings and perceptions.

The parent’s treatment towards the pre-school child determines how he or she will internalize the concept of empathy (Howard & Barnett, 1981). Empathy can also be internalized in the pre-school child by talking to him or her about how other people feel. But the way the parents show their empathy serves as the bottom-line in determining the rate by which the child will comprehend the concept their own.

The parents must be role models. When the pre-school child misbehaves, it is important for parents to remain as calm as possible since yelling at the child would only instill the notion that doing the same is an acceptable way to handle feelings (Bergin, 2007).

Empathy can also be taught to pre-school children by helping them to learn about their emotions in general (Bergin, 2007). Young children possess all the emotional attributes that adults possess, but they may lack the capabilities to label and manage those feelings.

This is in line with the theory of perspective-taking discussed above. It is up to the parents to inspire the children to act with care and justice when faced with different situations in life. This can effectively be taught to pre-school children by pointing out to them their similarities and differences with other children (Seligman, Olson & Zanna, 1996).

A study comparing the altruistic capabilities of children in preschool found out that those who were encouraged to think and imagine about the feelings of others developed empathetic skills more rapidly than those to whom the other people’s feelings were not mentioned at all (Howard & Barnett, 1981).

The virtue of empathy is one that has immense beneficial attributes in the lives of adults and children alike. In pre-school children, the development of empathy can aptly assist in laying the groundwork for the growth and development of other positive characteristics such as skill in reasoning and effective communication.

Studies conducted over time have revealed that parents and those with close relationships with the young child play a significant role in bringing out the desired moral and ethical reasoning in them. The moral ground instilled in the young child influences their character later on in life.

One study found out that supportive, non-punitive, and non-controlling child-rearing practices are certainly related to mature moral judgment (Eisenberg & Roth, 1983). It should be the function of all stakeholders to make sure that the virtue of empathy is reinforced on a child’s thought system and world view to give him or her desired moral standing in society.


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