Fostering empathy in children
From a blog by Famly
Whether they are intentional or a complete accident, conflicts happen in any childcare setting. It’s easy to ask children of any age to apologise, and preparing children to understand why apologies matter is a crucial part of their development.
But so often, the approach of just saying 'Say sorry', forces apologies that come without meaning or a real understanding of exactly what’s happened.
What’s wrong with forcing apologies like this? How does empathy works in young children? What can you do when faced with a situation that makes you want to say ‘Say sorry’.
We need to think about exactly what we really want an apology to mean. In short, it shows that someone:
accepts blame for an action
has the empathy to understand that they’ve bothered someone else in some way
has remorse or regret for what they did.
Asking children to expect to understand this full range of emotions is a lot. What can often come out instead is a robotic apology that means very little, because the child knows saying sorry is what is expected of them, even if they don’t really understand why.
What’s more, it’s teaching children a magic word that can get them off the hook. And even more importantly, the practitioner is missing out on an opportunity to work through some crucial empathetic progress.
Empathy isn’t easy. Putting yourself in another person’s shoes is really difficult to do, especially for young ones who are still developing an understanding of their own emotions. In fact, empathy tends to be one of the last social skills children develop fully. It starts with having self-awareness and then being able to project this onto the way other children might be feeling.
So when fully fledged empathy is not yet complete in many pre-school children, we need to start seeing these moments as excellent opportunities to develop their empathy, rather than a few more empty words. So what can we do to use these situations to actually develop a child’s empathy?
1. Recognise a different type of resolution
Children can resolve the situation in a different way. For example, they may give a helping hand to a friend they accidentally knocked over, offering a toy or treat to someone they have upset. These moments show children starting to recognise feelings they have felt themselves or simply acting on instinct. Make sure that you’re recognising all different types of resolution and not simply insisting on an apology.
2. Give them time
Time is also important here. It is often rushing in with this forced apology that prevents children from really taking a look at what’s happened before they are made to feel like they’ve ‘resolved’ the matter.
3. Bring the children together
One way is to simply bring the children together. If they realise they’ve done something wrong, sometimes children simply want to remove themselves from the situation. But by telling them clearly what’s happened and explaining that they need to stay, they have to take a clear look at exactly what happened.
4. Explain clearly what happened
This is especially important for younger children, who in the most literal sense may not have even realised exactly what has happened. These comments shouldn’t come with judgement, they are just there to help the child understand what they have done, even if this seems obvious to you.
5. Repair the damage
It’s important for children to be involved in the actions to resolve the conflict too. Encourage them to take a step towards improving the situation.
6. Describe the effect
Describing the effect of what’s happened starts to bring the relationship of cause and effect into focus. “When you hit Amelia, it scratched her face. That must hurt.” It’s another way of encouraging empathy and being clear about how what’s happened might have caused the upset.
7. Don’t focus on blame
As you might have noticed, this really isn’t about punishment or blame. Understanding your role in a conflict is crucial to a meaningful apology. It allows children to develop a constructive understanding of remorse, rather than one linked to shame.
8. Model by apologising in your own life
One of the greatest ways we can foster empathy is by apologising in the correct way ourselves. Some good ways to model quality apologies include; I’m sorry for… Explain specifically what it is that you did, It was wrong because… Why what you did was wrong, In the future, I will… Say what you will do, rather than what you won’t do.
9. Ask them to make a guarantee
For younger children, a guarantee is more meaningful than a forced apology. Ask “Will you do that again?” and encourage them to make a reassurance to the other child. This helps to reestablish trust between the children, which is crucial to repairing the relationship after the conflict.
10. Teach empathy
As we’ve already mentioned plenty of times, the advantage of these approaches over ‘Say Sorry’ is that you actually have the chance to teach full empathy to children in your setting. At a very young age, all you can do is simply describe the feelings of others and why they might feel that way, as well as guiding their play towards empathy. As the children grow you can start to ask more open-ended questions to give them the opportunity to think about others’ feelings.
Read the full blog here.
Retweet about this article: