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3 Simple (not easy) Steps to Teaching Empathy

Updated: Aug 26, 2020

Research has shown that while narcissism in the United States has gone up dramatically since the '80s, empathy has gone down by as much as 50%!

Does this really surprise you? I've been teaching young children throughout that entire time and I could have told you that was true, but who believes the neighborhood preschool teacher/daycare lady who likes to dance in her PJ's every morning? Even when she has 43 years of experience and a master's degree in human development?

When I was a fairly young teacher, working at an ethnic festival, a fellow board member asked me a really great question. One I'll never forget because it was so simple and so profound. Anyone who knows me knows me knows that I love a good question more than I love dessert!

She said, "How DO you teach empathy to young children? It took me back a bit. Although I taught empathy for a living as a family childcare provider, I couldn't quite give her a good answer. That's bothered me ever since.

Now I"m starting to know why. Teaching empathy to children ages 0-5, is not talked about very much in the US, and not practiced enough either. But when we encounter young people who've grown up without it, we're shocked.

I don't mean to be overly harsh here, but just what do we actually do in this country to promote empathy in children 0-5 which, according to research, is the time frame we need to focus on for success?

It's hard to articulate because frankly, our language is lacking in words to describe empathy. I'm willing to bet most people would have a hard time defining it which is indicative of why we don't have enough of it in our society.

It's time we define empathy clearly and look around our world for fresh ideas on how to teach it. Then we need to convince people to focus on 0-5-year-olds to start with because if we don't start there, we won't get anywhere!

That's because by age 3 a child's brain has already reached 80% of its adult volume. And young children are actually wired for empathy from birth.


The famous "broccoli study" ( Repacholi and Gopnik, 1997) ) proved that toddlers as young as 18 mos can demonstrate empathy by offering broccoli, which the researchers demonstrated a love of, instead of their own preferred goldfish crackers, to cheer them up. The toddlers were able to understand that people have likes and dislikes different from their own and were able to figure out the right thing to offer to "help". Wow!

So, using what we know about neuroscience and what we know about happiness, we can start to craft a strategy to teach our children empathy.

Here are some of my favorite clear and simple ideas.

Model Empathy

We need to spend a little bit more time in this country modeling empathy as well as de-emphasizing competition that damages others. Not all forms of competition cause damage, but you know what I mean.

We can point out the fact that it's possible and preferable to live empathetically. Talk out loud about people who smile, people who help, and people who go out of their way to notice us.

And then we can start noticing the ways in which our children are helpful and point those behaviors out as being just that. Helpful.

We need to avoid phrases like good, bad, smart, and idiotic and focus instead on words like effort, persistence and caring. Just pointing out what you appreciated and why you appreciated it is enough, no "sticker chart" needed.

Just remember to etch these 3 words in your brain or on your refrigerator and use them often for increased success promoting empathy.


If you doubt me on that, I dare you to try it for just one day and then come back and say it didn't work. My years of experience tell me otherwise.

My experience also tells me that children do what we do, not what we say. Fairly recent neurological research backs me up on that. It turns out that humans have something called mirror neurons that cause us to mimic what we see in order to learn.

Actively Teach Empathy Through Communication

We don't have to start from scratch here because the Danes, who've been consistently voted the happiest people in the world, already know what works and they have a program to teach it in school.

Why didn't we think of that!

The program was designed by Mary, Crown Princess of Denmark, and it's called Free of Bullying. It teaches children 3-8 about bullying and teasing so they can learn to be more caring with each other.

They also have a program called Step By Step that teaches young children to identify emotions by looking at pictures of faces and talking about how people are feeling. The program is mandatory for all school children.

Danish families actively encourage children to notice the best in each other by using phrases such as, "Isn't that child clever?" and they also talk about poor behavior as being separate from the child with phrases like, "Do you think he was grumpy because he was hungry or tired?" or "Maybe she skipped her nap, today." rather than labeling the child a pest or a bad sport.

Books are the perfect medium for teaching about emotions. Choose stories that feature social problems and talk about how the characters feel. Lap reading is especially good because it combines the physical touch children need with the emotional closeness they love.

I was surprised to learn that as many as 30% of families in the United States don't read to their children at all! Could this really be true? I hope not.

One important point to keep in mind with emotional education is that,

"All feelings are OK."

It's also good to point out to your children that not all actions or words are OK and to help them find appropriate ones, especially when their feelings are intense.

Help your child learn more about their feelings and self-regulation. Or find a place for yourself to kick back and relax for a change. You deserve it, don't you think? join my community HERE! I don't have a fancy sales funnel to whisk you into my email list but I can promise you that I'll treat you like the VIP you are by sending you only quality stuff, and only once a week.

Community members will also be the first to find out and get on the list for my upcoming live class, Anti-Bullying-Teaching Empathy to Toddlers. Since the class will be live and on-line with only 20 spots available were anticipating a quick sell-out for the first session.,


Nanci J Bradley, 60, is an early childhood and family educator, author, teacher, SELF-care facilitator, family aerobics instructor, and an all-around fun-loving person. She believes in the power of sleep, healthy eating, lifelong learning and most of all, PLAY! She studied early childhood ed at Triton College and received her BS in education in 1986 from NIU. She received her MA in human development from Pacific Oaks College in 2011. She lives and teaches in Madison WI.


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