Listening with the Heart

There is chart, after chart, after chart of information regarding which gains or milestones a child must hit in their development. Most parents and schools are concerned with cognitive and physical development. Can my kid read when he’s suppose to? Was he an early walker?

There is no doubt that hitting milestones in cognitive development is important, but focusing only on this aspect isn’t looking at the big picture of development. What about play development? Social and emotional development?

As school counselors and play therapists, our whole profession is focused on developing these critical areas of child development. The most overlooked part of a developing child is their ability to play and their ability to relate. I say it all the time, but I’ll say it again. Despite our best efforts, children will not learn how to play or how to relate if you don’t teach them!

A HUGE developmental milestone for school-aged children is the development of empathy.

Empathy for Web

No doubt a hard skill even for adults. laid out important social and emotional milestones for school-aged children. The list looked something like this:

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Look how early children are supposed to be developing empathy! Because of this HUGE and often lacked skill in children, I decided my April character trait would be just that, empathy.  I am not blind to the fact that many personality and neurodevelopmental disorders, such as narcissistic personality disorder or autism, hinder a person’s full ability to be empathetic, but they can be taught what it looks like, they can be taught to see it in others, and they can be taught to recognize situations where they could have used empathy, but perhaps overlooked it in the moment.

So how do you teach young children empathy? That was my April challenge and here’s how it turned out.

Kindergarten and 1st Grade

The best way to teach 5 and 6 year olds about empathy is to pose possible scenarios and tap into how they would feel about the situation. You can then relate their experiences to experiences of others. Keeping this in mind, I began my K and 1 lesson by having boys discuss how they would react in different situations. I really focused in on how each person responds fairly similarly, but how sometimes we respond different. What does this mean about us? About our friends? 

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We have focused on feeling words in the past so I continued to focus on this. Guiding their responses to sound something like this, “I would feel ______ because ______ and then I would _______.” Or, ” I would do _________ because I would feel _______.”

Once we discuss how we would feel and what we would do, we discuss how others can feel the same way in the same situations. Here is where I introduce empathy.

We talk about what it looks like and sounds like to care for someone else. Ways we already help other in need. And hardest of all, how we let others know that we understand how they feel.

I told them the best way to understand how a friend feels is by listening to them. We show them we care when we listen with our eyes, ears, and mouth.

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I found a fantastic book by Kathleen Pedersen called, “Can You Listen With Your . . . ?” It is a monster book about whole body listening. The download is free on Teachers Pay Teachers. It comes with a great lesson beforehand about classroom expectations.

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Next, I gave them a situation that would require empathy and asked how they would respond, using our guidelines above.

You want to:

  1. Show someone you care.
  2. Help someone in need
  3. Understand how they feel

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To complete the lesson, the boys drew illustrations showing how they would listen with their heart and demonstrate empathy. I got the activity page from Kathleen Pedersen’s “Can You Listen With Your . . . ?” book. 

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